An expert always checks his own results

One of my personal favorites of the upcoming 62. Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting is Dan Shechtman. He is not only an excellent scientist. He had the nerves and verve to fight for his findings for more than one decade. And not at least the quasi-periodic crystals are so beautiful! In this sense Dan Shechtman, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 2011, might bring into Lindau a special spirit and be an adviser for the young researchers – at it’s best.

“I advise students to become experts in a subject they like, by reading, listening to lectures and following current publications in their field of choice.  An expert in his field will have a wonderful career“, Shechtman told me before the meeting*.

Dan Shechtman needed a lot of stamina to fight for the recognition of his pioneering discovery, because his finding contradicted the prevailing paradigm. On the morning of 8 April 1982, results of an electron diffraction he was using at Johns Hopkins University to investigate a quickly solidifying aluminium-magnesium alloy showed him a completely unexpected image. Instead of a symmetric crystalline arrangement in three, four or six-fold axes, the diffraction pattern indicated ten-fold axes – an arrangement where the individual atoms no longer had the same distance to all neighbours, which at the time was considered to be absolutely imperative for a crystal. Shechtman’s results revealed an aperiodic pattern, similar to the medieval mosaics in the Alhambra Palace in Spain.

Shechtman noted down the discovery in his laboratory book with three question marks (???) – but he believed in it, as he remembers: “Science is basically experimental and an expert quickly recognizes a discovery when he stumbles upon one.” Further measurements confirmed Shechtman in his discovery, the then unknown quasi-periodic crystal form. However, there was a great host of critics, as the quasicrystals did not conform to the school of thought at that time. Even double-Nobel winner Linus Pauling, one of the most respected scientists in the world, declared: “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”

Nevertheless, Shechtman was not distracted, and he didn’t give up studying quasicrystals with his colleagues at the Technion in Haifa. “An expert always checks his own results. If his further experiments prove him right, he can stand tall against all criticism that may come from theoreticians,” he says today. Only when they succeeded in producing larger quantities of quasi-crystals and confirming their pattern by X-ray diffraction were Dan Shechtman and his colleagues able to convince the International Union of Crystallography of the existence of quasi-crystals – ten years after their discovery. And the definition of crystals was altered.

Before the meeting in Lindau, Shechtman says about his expectations: „I look forward to sharing my experience with the young researchers at Lindau and to participating in stimulating discussions.“
I am pretty sure exactly this will happen.

*In this posting I cite parts of a press release for this year’s meeting #lnlm12

Beatrice Lugger

About Beatrice Lugger

Beatrice Lugger is a science journalist and science social media specialist with a background as a chemist. She is Scientific Director of the National Institute for Science Communication, NaWik – @BLugger is her twitter handle, Quantensprung her own blog.

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