Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman won the 2011 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for his discovery of quasicrystals.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Shechtman’s discovery in 1982 fundamentally changed the way chemists look at solid matter.
Contrary to the previous belief that atoms were arranged inside crystals in symmetrical patterns, Shechtman showed that the atoms in a crystal could be packed in a pattern that could not be repeated, the academy said.
In all solid matter, atoms were believed to be packed inside crystals in symmetrical patterns that were repeated over and over again. It was this ordered repetition that was required to obtain a crystal.
Schectman’s discovery of so-called quasicrystals, made on April 8, 1982, showed that atoms in a crystal were packed in a pattern that could not be repeated.
At the time, “such a pattern was considered just as impossible as creating a football using only six-cornered polygons, when a sphere needs both five- and six-cornered polygons,” the academy said.
Schectman’s finding forced scientists who study crystals to question a fundamental truth of their science: that all crystals consist of repeating, periodic patterns.
Quasicrystals have been synthesized in laboratories around the world since their discovery in 1982, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the first naturally-occurring quasicrystals were found.
They have also been found in some of the most durable kinds of steel in the world, and they are used in products such as razor blades and thin needles used in eye surgery. Scientists are also experimenting with using quasicrystals in surface coatings for frying pans, heat insulation in engines, and energy-saving LED lights.
Schectman’s discovery was extremely controversial, the academy said. “In the course of defending his findings, he was asked to leave his research group. However, his battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter,” it said.
Shechtman, 70, is a professor of materials science at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.