Israeli Wins Nobel Chemistry Prize For Quasicrystals

Israeli chemist Daniel Schectman's discovery of how atoms fit together inside of crystals changed the way chemists look at solid matter.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

The Nobel Prizes are being awarded all this week. Today, the chemistry prize goes to Daniel Schechtman for his work on something called quasicrystals. Schechtman discovered these crystals in 1982, and they fundamentally changed the way scientists looked at solid matter. Joining me to discuss this year's prize is NPR science correspondent, Joe Palca.

Good to have you with us, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Good to be here.

NEARY: So tell us about Schechtman and his discovery.

PALCA: Well, Schechtman is an Israeli. He was born in Tel Aviv in 1941. And he's now a professor at the Technion-Israeli Institute of Technology in Haifa. In 1982, he was working on a sabbatical here in the United States in what was then called the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology. And he was looking at a mix of aluminum and manganese through an electron microscope. And when he - he saw a pattern through the microscope. It was very strange. It was 10 concentric dots. Now, what does that mean?

Well, to him it meant that these atoms were packing together in this mixture in a way that no one had seen before. Ten dots suggested there was something going on that was very strange, a kind of a 10-fold symmetry. And so he couldn't believe it at first, because it violated the rules of - then the rules of what crystals were.

NEARY: So did he see this over a period of time, or did he see it suddenly, all...

PALCA: No, this is one of those amazing things, Lynn. He actually saw it on a particular day. And here's Professor Sven Lidin of the Swedish Academy of Sciences at the press conference this morning, describing the work.

PROFESSOR SVEN LIDIN: We can date this discovery perfectly. Often, the Nobel Prize is awarded to something that has developed over a long time. For this particular discovery, we know it took place on April the 8th, 1982.

PALCA: And that's because they have his lab notebook with the date on it, and also his writing in the margin, saying: Tenth? - question mark, question mark. So he obviously knew he had seen something very weird.

NEARY: So when he told the world about this discovery, what was the reaction?

PALCA: They didn't believe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PALCA: They said you've made a mistake. You're seeing something wrong. He sent in a paper. It was rejected right away. And it took almost two years just to get the paper published, and then it was not universally accepted, but obviously, over time, it did come to be accepted.

NEARY: All right. So this changes the way crystals are understood. But are there any practical implications to this at all?

PALCA: Well, yes. These crystals have some interesting properties. First of all, they're harder than other materials, in many cases. And so they've actually been - they're used in things like razor blades and surgical steel. They're also poor conductors of heat. And so they can be used as insulators, and they're also - they have what's called thermo-electric properties, which means when you heat them up, they give off an electric current. And so they're used in LEDs, these light-emitting diodes that are used in many kinds of displays.

Now, the other interesting thing that I found about this is that they - these crystals were never seen in nature before two years ago, when the first one that was ever discovered in nature was discovered in a river in Eastern Russia. So these have all been laboratory-built things. And what's different about these crystals from others is that crystals used to be defined as something that was regular and repeating - regular and repeating. But these quasi-crystals are regular in the sense that they're made of the same kinds of shapes, but the shapes go together in a non-repeating way. So they go on, but each - as you keep going, the patterns are different, even though the bits that go together are all the same.

NEARY: Hmm. So remind us, Joe, before we finish this, remind us of just how much this prize is worth.

PALCA: Well, the prize is worth 10 million Swedish kronor, which is about $1.5 million - U.S. dollars. And there's one other interesting thing about this prize - or at least I thought it was interesting. The prize goes to just one person. The other prizes awarded this week were to teams or groups.

NEARY: Yeah.

PALCA: And I thought that was unusual. But actually, I looked it up, and it turns out that 62 of the chemistry Nobels have gone to just one person. So - or now, 63. So I guess it's something you can do in a solitary way. You don't have to have pals to win the Nobel in chemistry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: OK. Thanks, Joe. NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks so much for being with us.

PALCA: You're welcome.

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