A humble attempt to interpret discoveries to the public in an understandable language…

My personal view about Daniel Shechtman, the 2011 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, and an attempt to bring together the scattered information on quasicrystals and the life of  Daniel Shectman.

“A good scientist is a humble scientist,” said Daniel Shechtman, the winner of Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2011). 

My memories were getting re-winded to the ‘group theory’ lecture during my masters, when I peeped into the details of Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year.  In the lecture, my professor concluded, “Symmetry of any molecule till now could be categorized under the 32 crystallographic point groups. Anyone who can suggest a new type of symmetry or point group will surely win a Nobel prize”. When the lecture ended, just to get rid of my thoughts, I simply made myself believe that such a discovery may be impossible. That belief remained intact even during my research work in crystallography, until the day I happened to read about “quasicrystals”. I could not digest how it is possible. However, I understood one thing, if it is real; such a discovery would be phenomenal. Now, when Daniel Shechtman received the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, I feel the words of my professor almost came true.

To know more about quasicrystals, first we need to have an outline on the structure of crystals. Crystallized materials are normally made up of “unit cells” of atoms that repeat over and over to make a single, uniform structure. Normal crystals can be described by one of the 230 space groups (space groups describe the translation and rotational symmetry elements in the structure). I will make it simple for those who do not know much about it. From earlier times, our concept, or assumption was that, in a crystal, the atoms are arranged regularly like ‘tiles’. Any substance which lacks this property was simply called ‘amorphous material’. In a crystal, if we move from one end to another in a particular path, the pattern will repeat periodically. For any type of crystal in the universe, the pattern of atoms could be categorized under a set of symmetry rules – a crystal system, or a space group.

But on April 8, 1982, when Daniel Shechtman was studying a series of alloyed metals, he found out that it has a pentagonal (5-sided shape) symmetry. But such a pattern would lack translational symmetry. It will not only break the repetition of the ‘tiles’, but also disrupt the fundamentals of crystallography. When Shechtman told the world that he found a material with pentagonal symmetry, great crystallographers of the time just laughed at him. Even the prominent scientists like Linus Pauling said that he was “talking nonsense” and “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists”. Finally, head of his research group told to go back and read the textbook. He was asked to leave the group for bringing disgrace on the team!!! They thought that such a discovery is impossible.

His battle for proving quasicrystal was not too short. He worked alone to prove his findings for two years. The finding obviously was an interesting one, and many scientists from around the world started to work on these materials. Shechtman started receiving calls from several scientists, saying ‘I have it, I have it, I have it, too!’. His co-worker John Cahn supported him, he dropped everything else and started spending full time for this research (a total of 5 years). Next year itself, the world saw 300 papers reporting this class of materials! The research became a hot topic everywhere, except in US, because of the words of Linus Pauling. Back in 1984, at Princeton, Shechtman’s paper reached the table of a scientist called Steinhardt. He also was computing the unusual ways in which atoms could pack together to form crystals! This was the beginning of a teamwork to prove the existence of quasicrystals and its explanation. The term quasicrystal originally was termed by Steinhardt. Regular patterns, which follow mathematical rules, but never repeat themselves, were found in medieval Islamic mosaics (Alhambra palace, Spain and the Darb-i Imam shrine, Iran). This was similar to the pattern in quasicrystals. Later on, Shechtman made use of Electron Microscope to directly view this pattern. He told, “Without the electron microscope, I wouldn’t have made this groundbreaking discovery, or would have been delayed several years”. The success story now reached a very nice ending with the winning of Nobel prize.

I also came across two occasions in my research life, when references served inadequate to explain the findings. First one was a Sulphur-Sulphur bond breaking and a subsequent rearrangement, losing one of the Sulphur atom. My guiding scientist told me that you can publish it, but ONLY IF you yourself can find a solid reference to it. Two years later came a very similar finding from another research group, leaving nothing new for me to publish. Still, there is yet another abnormal phenomena I observed, but explained nowhere else. May be, someone will explain it before me.  I regret being in the category of scientists who couldn’t interpret the obtained quaicrystals and bow to the guts and will power of Shechtman. But there are direct evidences of PhD students often facing this type of problems. In 1979 (3 years before Shechtman), Marc van Sande, a 27-year-old doctoral student working in the Electron Microscopy for Materials Science (EMAT) group at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, had recorded electron diffraction patterns from metal alloys that showed clear evidence of quasicrystals. van Sande just filed the confusing patterns in the EMAT library close to the end of his PhD. “We were making so many new discoveries every week with the high-resolution electron microscopes that the more awkward things were set aside,” recalls van Sande. “I’m realistic about it: seeing the pattern is a long way from investigating it and publishing it.”

 Counting the number of Nobel Prizes associated with crystallography, the discovery of quasicrystals stands the 26th Nobel Prize in crystallography. It still isn’t clear how atoms assemble into quasicrystal structures. But the finding was (or is) a revolution in crystallography and material science. But if one may ask “what are the applications of quasi crystals?”; then there is nothing much to say regarding its real world application – scientists are working to make use of it in products like frying pans and diesel engines etc. It is told that “Shechtman’s quasi-crystals could be used to improve the mechanical properties of engineering materials and are the basis of an entirely new branch of structural science”. However, it is reported that quasicrystals have been produced in laboratories and a Swedish company found them in one of the most durable kinds of steel, which is now used in products such as razor blades and thin needles made specifically for eye surgery. “Shechtman’s key contribution to chemistry lies in opening scientists’ eyes to the possibility of new forms of matter”, said Sven Lidin, a member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. Thus, in my view, Shechtman is special not only for his discovery or for being a Nobel laureate, but for the valuable lesson we have to learn from his life.

Thelander, who leads the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at academy told, “Shechtman’s discovery of quasicrystals revealed a new principle for packing of atoms and molecules” – justifying the words of my professor.

For further reading in this topic, I suggest  http://www.ccp14.ac.uk/ccp/web-mirrors/weber/~weber/qc.html


 This my loyal attempt to simplify the tough language we come across in research journals and outputs so as to make it understandable to the public. Discussion of specific research topics also will be included for the interests of advanced researchers.

  I am Amal Cherian Kathalikkattil, a young researcher from India, doing PhD in Chemical Engineering in South Korea.

 My ongoing research work in chemical engineering is an attempt to design catalyst for converting the major global warming agent – carbon dioxide (CO2) – into useful products, despite its inertness to react with many chemicals.

 Previously worked in Crystal Engineering in a CSIR lab in India as Senior Research Fellow. Other areas involve the rational designing of Metal Organic Frameworks, crystal engineering of cocrystals etc.

 Worked also in National Institute of Oceanography (CSIR), India in Chemical Oceanography.

This post is directly from my personal diary, not written with an aim to publish to the public. Still, if you are interested, you can read it (original date of compilation: 26th July 2010)

Being an enthusiastic listener rather than a good speaker, I have obtained enough information to compile a database of various thoughts and experiences of people and got a chance to study them. I could evaluate myself as a man with diverse experiences than many of my peers. As far as my life is concerned, mostly bitter ones seem to supersede the sweet ones when I turn back to my past. From a philosophical point of view and after thorough analyses, I could conclude those experiences as strong ones to craft me to one of the most successful persons in this world. But the reality is that it didn’t work out fully when it came to the practical side. I would never say that I was a failure; I could study a lot from the failures throughout my life and I could obtain lot of exposure through the circumstances I was brought up from. But the question I always ask myself is, “To what extent could I implement those lessons in succeeding in my further life?” Sometimes I felt that my experiences made me a cat that has drunken hot milk, which fears to take even cold milk due to its past bitter experience. Some people may say that every human life have their own troubles, but I believe that the level of trouble varies from person to person. But most of the people say, “it is me who had the bitterest experience ever”. I would call such people as a frog in a well – if they haven’t analyzed others properly. To the Frog in the well, the whole world is that seen in front of it and doesn’t realize that there is a pretty beautiful and vast world outside the well. I have seen people betraying God when they have trouble times or when lost their dear ones, without accepting Almighty’s plans or without thinking that there are still worst lives in and around them.
A common Indian citizen is a frog in a well not only in intellectual aspects, but also in materialistic aspects too. I never mean to hurt an average Indian, and don’t want to fall into trouble like Dr. Shashi Tharoor who fell in to trouble by his cattle class statement. My statement is out of my own experiences. At my age of twelve, we had to sell our house and shift to a rented house owing to some financial crisis related to my father’s business. Since then, we lived in more than a dozen numbers of houses. Still I don’t have own house, even at this age of twenty seven. I really enjoyed it – new places, new friends and new people wherever I go. I love that dynamic life, moving through different places rather than living a stagnant life in a particular village. I believe that this river is far better than spending the life in a mere pond. God gave us a wonderful life, the most excellent among His creatures. I could only pity upon elder relatives advising us to buy a house and settle down in a ‘pond’. But I never argued with them because the world outside the pond cannot be convinced to ordinary ‘frogs’ until and unless they see the world outside. My father passed away from this world and he rarely had his own house during his life span. But he was the most happiest and unbeaten man I could see in this world. His happiness and mood was not dependent on his circumstances. Instead, he was engaged in cheering others up even in the most difficult times. I always tried to copy that attitude from him. I believe he was a successful person as a human despite he earned no money or assets in this world. During the marriage ceremony of my brother, I could see elders advising him that it is time for him to settle down, and to buy own house. Obviously, my brother also has my own attitude. But I am sure, he will be in continuous compulsion to fall into a well; else he would be stamped as an odd fellow by the society.

One night, while I was having a chat with one of my best friends, our talk turned on to the subject “frog in a well”. I was wondered over his status message Koopa Mandookam (means, frog in a well in Malayalam) and made fun of him. It was he who made me think that our mind itself was inside a well. We were talking about a friend in financial distress leading to intellectual worry. Till that day, my mentality was that why should I contact a person in trouble unless I cannot help him financially. But that night I realized that even a word or an act of consolation was capable enough to bring him up. I could see that the thought really worked out.

I was happy for the time being, but the close analysis made me realize that no man is able to fully get out from that well. Now you may think that you are out of the well, and reached the river. But is the river the last word? There are land and seas outside…. there are oceans and continents… still outside there lies earth and solar system… still out are the Milky Way and galaxy… and finally lies the universe… There lies nobody who is delocalized in the whole universe – except the God, Almighty. So, ultimately it matters – to what extent we could come out of the well rather than attaining the perfection. So come-on, let us leap to our most possible extent.

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