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Remembering quasicrystals as formerly an object of ridicule

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The ridiculous idea of crystals that do not repeat in regular patterns but rather in pentangles following the Golden Mean won Israeli scientist Dan Schechtman the Nobel Prize in 2011. But before that:

Schectman’s is an interesting story, involving a fierce battle against established science, ridicule and mockery from colleagues and a boss who found the finding so controversial, he asked him to leave the lab.

Most crystals are composed of a three-dimensional arrangement of atoms that repeat in an orderly pattern. Depending on their chemical composition, they have different symmetries. For example, atoms arranged in repeating cubes have fourfold symmetry. Atoms arranged as equilateral triangles have threefold symmetries. But quasicrystals behave differently than other crystals. They have an orderly pattern that includes pentagons, fivefold shapes, but unlike other crystals, the pattern never repeats itself exactly. Jenny Marder, “What are Quasicrystals, and What Makes Them Nobel-Worthy?” at PBS Newshour

A natural quasicrystal was also found in 2009 by Paul Steinhardt:

The quasicrystal was in a rock that had been sequestered in a museum in Florence. In The Second Kind of Impossible, Steinhardt, a theoretical physicist, chronicles the detective work that led to his no-eureka-necessary moment — and sent him from Princeton University to the wilds of Siberia to find out how that rock had formed.

The very idea of quasicrystals was once derided. Chemist Linus Pauling joked, “There is no such thing as quasicrystals. Only quasi-scientists.” But in the 1980s, Steinhardt wondered if quasicrystals were truly out of the question, or if they were a “second kind of impossible” — something achievable under conditions that just hadn’t been considered yet. By 2009, scientists had synthesized these supposedly impossible materials. Steinhardt wondered if nature could make them too. Lisa Grossman, “The quest for quasicrystals is a physics adventure tale” at Science News

Steinhardt has written a book on the subject, The Second Kind of Impossible: The Extraordinary Quest for a New Form of Matter

It’s conventional to recall a famous person putting down an idea that turns out later to be correct. In reality, the majority of putdowns come from people who would never have an original idea themselves, who are frightened by the concept in principle.

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