The story behind Dan Shechtman’s 2011 Nobel prize in Chemistry is absolutely fascinating. It highlights many of the great things about science, as well as highlighting some of the less than complimentary behaviours of some scientists.
Professor Shechtman’s discovery of quasicrystals challenged the existing understanding of crystal periodicity. This resulted in hostility from some prominent scientists including Linus Pauling who is quoted as saying “there is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” A symptom of the Nobel disease perhaps?
Fortunately, Professor Schechtman persevered and his discovery was demonstrated through replication in other laboratories.
Professor Schechtman’s work demonstrates the importance of curiosity driven research. Out of the most unexpected results can grow a fascinating new field with various applications (quasi crystals – have many applications, for example in forming strong and durable steels). This is one of the reasons that many scientists, including myself, become concerned when the government talks about applied research. Under a purely applied research environment, unusual results are more readily discarded instead of being examined to see why they are unusual.
Professor Schechtman demonstrates the traits of a good scientist – a respect for evidence (even when it contradicts theory), hardworking, stubborn in the face of adversity and curious. An excellent choice for this year’s Nobel prize in Chemistry.