Tags: dan schecchtman, paul steinhardt, quasicrystals
If you haven’t been keeping up with quasicrystals, let me give a brief rundown of the significance of these little dazzlers. The first thing you should know is that after a lot of ridicule from his collegues, Dan Schechtman (the scientist who discovered quasicrystals) was handed the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery. What’s so significant about this discovery you ask? Well, quasicrystals pretty much turned the prevailing view of the atomic structure of matter on its head.
Crystals are composed of a three-dimensional repeating orderly atomic pattern, and they’re symmetrical. To understand quasicrystals I’m going to
give you a nice layman’s explanation provided by Pat Theil, Senior Scientist at the U.S. Energy Department’s Ames Laboratory and Professor of materials science at Iowa State University.
“If you want to cover your bathroom floor, your tiles can be rectangles or triangles or squares or hexagons. Any other simple shape won’t work, because it will leave a gap. In a quasicrystal, imagine atoms are at the points of the objects you’re using. What Danny discovered is that pentagonal symmetry works. But since pentagons can’t fit together like squares or triangles can, nature places other atomic shapes into the gaps…glue atoms.”
As if that wasn’t enough to make these crystals really interesting, it now turns out that these alien crystals are literally that — space rocks. Paul Steinhardt, Professor of physics and Director of Princeton’s Center for Theoretical Science, and his colleagues discovered that the only known sample found in Russia in the Koryak Mountains is part of a meteorite. And that adds a whole new dimension to understanding how these crystals are formed. As Steinhardt says:
“Nature managed to do it under conditions we would have thought completely nuts.”