Israeli Scientist Wins Nobel Prize for Chemistry
By KENNETH CHANG
An Israeli scientist won this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering quasicrystals, a
material in which atoms were packed together in a well-defined pattern that never repeats.
Recent Nobel prizes have generally split credit for scientific advances among two or three
people, but this year’s chemistry prize and accompanying 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.4
million) went to a single scientist: Dan Shechtman, 70, a professor of materials science
at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Dr. Shechtman is also a professor at Iowa
State University and a researcher at the United States Department of Energy’s Ames
The citation from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences states simply, “for the discovery of
Such regular but nonrepeating patterns, defined by precise rules, have been known in
mathematics since antiquity, and medieval Islamic artists made decorative, nonrepeating tile
mosaics, but the phenomenon was thought impossible in the packing of atoms.
Yet Dr. Shechtman discovered the same type of structure in a mix of aluminum and
manganese. During a sabbatical in Maryland at the National Bureau of Standards, now known
as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, he took a molten glob of the metals
and chilled it rapidly. The expectation was that the atoms would have been a random jumble,
like glass. Yet when he examined his metal with an electron microscope, Dr. Shechtman
found that the atoms were not random.
His notebook recorded the exact date: April 8, 1982.
Scientists believed that crystals in materials all contained repeating patterns. For example, a
square lattice has fourfold symmetry. Rotate it by 90 degrees, and it looks identical. A
repeating lattice with fivefold symmetry, however, is impossible. On that morning in 1982,
the electrons Dr. Shechtman bounced off his aluminum-manganese alloy formed a pattern
that indicated tenfold symmetry. Dr. Shechtman himself could not quite believe it. He wrote
in his notebook, “10 Fold???”
While a periodic lattice could not produce that pattern, a quasicrystal could.
It took years for Dr. Shechtman to persuade others.
During the announcement, the Nobel committee noted that one colleague initially said, “Go
away, Danny,” because he thought there was a simpler explanation for what Dr. Shechtman
had observed. Many scientists — notably Linus Pauling, the Nobel-winning giant of chemistry
— argued vehemently that Dr. Shechtman’s data could be explained by “twinning,” where two
ordinary periodic crystals are fused together at an angle.
“That must have been intimidating,” said Nancy B. Jackson, president of the American
Chemical Society. “When he first discovered these materials, nobody thought they could
exist. It was one of these great scientific stories that his fellow scientists thought was
impossible, but through time, people came to realize he was right.”
Even the definition of crystal had to be changed. Previously, a crystal had been defined as
having “a regularly ordered, repeating three-dimensional pattern,” according to
theInternational Union of Crystallography. The new definition, adopted in 1992, states that a
crystal is simply a solid with a “discrete diffraction diagram” — that is, something that
produces patterns like the ones Dr. Shechtman saw.
That leaves the door open for yet more different kinds of crystals in the future. Quasicrystals
have since been found in many other materials, including a naturally occurring mineral from a
Russian river. Materials scientists have been exploring quasicrystals because of their distinct
properties — they are hard, brittle, slippery, and, unlike most metals, poor conductors of
Quasicrystals have so far had modest impact in the everyday world. For example, one kind of
highly resilient steel, consisting of hard steel quasicrystals embedded within softer steel, is
now used in razor blades and thin needles for eye surgery.
“The applications haven’t panned out,” said Patricia A. Thiel, a colleague of Dr. Shechtman at
Iowa State and Ames Laboratory who also studies quasicrystals. “But they revolutionized our
understanding of how atoms arrange themselves in solids. It was a scientific revolution.”
Israeli leaders expressed delight and pride at the 10th Nobel Prize won by their country,
which has a population of less than 8 million. Two years ago, Ada E. Yonath of the Weizmann
Institute of Science in Rehovot shared the award for chemistry as well.
Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, spoke by telephone to Mr. Shechtman at a news conference
in Haifa and said, “Professor Shechtman, you today brought an enormous gift to the State of
Israel, truly.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also called and told him, “Every Israeli is
happy today, and every Jew in the world is proud.”
Dr. Shechtman was born and educated in Israel. At the news conference, he said, “The
celebration is not only for the Technion and the State of Israel but also for science worldwide.
There are today thousands of scientists around the world working in this field that I
developed, and I am certain they all see this prize as their accomplishment and they really
deserve it. Without these thousands, this science would not be where it is today.”
Mr. Shechtman added, “The main lesson that I have learned over time is that a good scientist
is a humble and listening scientist and not one that is sure 100 percent in what he reads in
Studies of Universe’s Expansion Win Physics Nobel
By DENNIS OVERBYE
Three astronomers won the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for discovering that the
universe is apparently being blown apart by a mysterious force that cosmologists now
calldark energy, a finding that has thrown the fate of the universe and indeed the nature of
physics into doubt.
The astronomers are Saul Perlmutter, 52, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and
the University of California, Berkeley; Brian P. Schmidt, 44, of the Australian National
University in Canberra; and Adam G. Riess, 41, of the Space Telescope Science Institute and
Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
“I’m stunned,” Dr. Riess said by e-mail, after learning of his prize by reading about it on The
New York Times’s Web site.
The three men led two competing teams of astronomers who were trying to use the exploding
stars known as Type 1a supernovae as cosmic lighthouses to limn the expansion of the
universe. The goal of both groups was to measure how fast the cosmos, which has been
expanding since its fiery birth in the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, was slowing down, and
thus to find out if its ultimate fate was to fall back together in what is called a Big Crunch or
to drift apart into the darkness.
Instead, the two groups found in 1998 that the expansion of the universe was actually
speeding up, a conclusion that nobody would have believed if not for the fact that both sets of
scientists wound up with the same answer. It was as if, when you tossed your car keys in the
air, instead of coming down, they flew faster and faster to the ceiling.
Subsequent cosmological measurements have confirmed that roughly 70 percent of the
universe by mass or energy consists of this antigravitational dark energy that is pushing the
galaxies apart, though astronomers and physicists have no conclusive evidence of what it is.
The most likely explanation for this bizarre behavior is a fudge factor that Albert Einstein
introduced into his equations in 1917 to stabilize the universe against collapse and then
abandoned as his greatest blunder.
Quantum theory predicts that empty space should exert a repulsive force, like dark energy,
but one that is 10 to the 120th power times stronger than what the astronomers have
measured, leaving some physicists mumbling about multiple universes. Abandoning the
Einsteinian dream of a single final theory of nature, they speculate that there are a multitude
of universes with different properties. We live in one, the argument goes, that is suitable for
“Every test we have made has come out perfectly in line with Einstein’s original cosmological
constant in 1917,” Dr. Schmidt said.
If the universe continues accelerating, astronomers say, rather than coasting gently into the
night, distant galaxies will eventually be moving apart so quickly that they cannot
communicate with one another and all the energy will be sucked out of the universe.
Edward Witten, a theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein’s old stomping
grounds, called dark energy “the most startling discovery in physics since I have been in the
field.” Dr. Witten continued, “It was so startling, in fact, that I personally took quite a while to
become convinced that it was right.”
He went on, “This discovery definitely changed the way physicists look at the universe, and
we probably still haven’t fully come to grips with the implications.”
Dr. Perlmutter, who led the Supernova Cosmology Project out of Berkeley, will get half of the
prize of 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.4 million). The other half will go to Dr. Schmidt, leader
of the rival High-Z Supernova Search Team, and Dr. Riess, who was the lead author of the
1998 paper in The Astronomical Journal, in which the dark energy result was first published.
All three astronomers were born and raised in the United States; Dr. Schmidt is also a citizen
of Australia. They will get their prizes in Stockholm on Dec. 10.
Since the fate of the universe is in question, astronomers would love to do more detailed
tests using supernovas and other observations. So they were dispirited last year when NASA
announced that cost overruns and delays on the James Webb Space Telescope had left no
room in the budget until the next decade for an American satellite mission to investigate dark
energy that Dr. Perlmutter and others had been promoting for almost a decade. Indeed on
Tuesday the European Space Agency announced that it would launch a mission called Euclid
to study dark energy in 2019.
Cosmic expansion was discovered by Edwin Hubble, an astronomer at the Mount Wilson
Observatory in Pasadena, Calif., in 1929, but the quest for precision measurements of the
universe has been hindered by a lack of reliable standard candles, objects whose distance can
be inferred by their brightness or some other observable characteristic. Type 1a supernovae,
which are thought to result from explosions of small stars known as white dwarfs, have long
been considered uniform enough to fill the bill, as well as bright enough to be seen across the
In the late 1980s Dr. Perlmutter, who had just gotten a Ph.D. in physics, devised an
elaborate plan involving networks of telescopes tied together by the Internet to detect and
study such supernovae and use them to measure the presumed deceleration of the universe.
The Supernova Cosmology Project endured criticism from other astronomers, particularly
supernova experts, who doubted that particle physicists could do it right.
Indeed, it took seven years before Dr. Perlmutter’s team began harvesting supernovae in the
numbers it needed. Meanwhile, the other astronomers had formed their own team, the High-
Z team, to do the same work.
“Hey, what’s the strongest force in the universe?” Robert P. Kirshner of the Harvard-
Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and a mentor to many of the astronomers on the new
team, asked a reporter from this newspaper once. “It’s not gravity, it’s jealousy,” Dr.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Dr. Perlmutter described the subsequent work of
the teams as “a long aha.” The presence of dark energy showed up in an expected faintness
on the part of some distant supernovae: the universe had sped up and carried them farther
away from us than conventional cosmology suggested.
As recounted by the science writer Richard Panek in his recent book, “The 4% Universe, Dark
Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality,” neither team was eager
to report such a strange result.
In January 1998, Dr. Riess interrupted preparations for his honeymoon to buck up his
comrades. “Approach these results not with your heart or head but with your eyes,” he wrote
in an e-mail. “We are observers after all!”
In the years since, the three astronomers have shared a number of awards, sometimes giving
lectures in which they completed one another’s sentences. A Nobel was expected eventually.
“No more waiting!” Dr. Kirshner said Tuesday.