|Scientist Daniel Shechtman suffered years of ridicule for his assertion that quasicrystals existed [AFP]|
An Israeli scientist who suffered years of ridicule and even lost a research post for claiming to have found an entirely new class of solid material has been awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals.
Daniel Shechtman, who learned that he had been awarded the prestigious prize on Wednesday, said that he was “excited” but at pains to praise fellow scientists, many of whom once doubted him.
Shechtman, now 70 years old, was working in the United States in 1982 when he observed atoms in a crystal he had made form a five-sided pattern that did not repeat itself, defying received wisdom that they must create repetitious patterns, like triangles, squares or hexagons.
The Nobel Committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences described quasicrystals as “fascinating mosaics of the Arabic world reproduced at the level of atoms: regular patterns that never repeat themselves”.
“People just laughed at me,” Shechtman recalled in an interview this year with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noting how Linus Pauling, a colossus of science and double Nobel laureate, mounted a frightening “crusade” against him, saying: “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”
After telling Shechtman to go back and read the textbook, the head of his research group asked him to leave for “bringing disgrace” on the team. “I felt rejected,” Shachtman remembered.
“His discovery was extremely controversial,” said the Nobel Committee, which granted him the $1.5mn award.
Ron Lifshitz, a physics professor at Tel Aviv University, told Reuters news agency: “He dealt with the scepticism in a very scientific and gentlemanly manner and answered his critics as every scientist should – through science.”
“There were also personal slurs but those did not warrant a response … He believed in his own work and carried on with determination,” he said.
Despite years of criticism, Shechtman trusted in his science and came to see the criticism by the late Pauling as a positive source of strength.
“When you’re a young scientist, and you’re faced with perhaps the top international scientist, Professor Linus Pauling… and he argues with you as an equal, and you know that he is wrong – that’s not really such a bad feeling,” he said.
Shechtman was ultimately vindicated.
According to the Nobel Committee, “His battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter.
Three decades after Shechtman’s discovery, non-stick, rust-free, heat-resistant quasicrystals are finding their way into tools from LEDs to engines and frying pans.