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Schechtman’s Lessons

From Haaretz, from an article published a full six months before the Nobel Prize was awarded to Dan Schechtman, some climate-relevant findings. In no particular order:

  1. “Unchallengeable basic tenets” must be considered as transient in any scientific field
  2. Any scientific field that is considered “closed”, “solid”, “total” is ripe for a revolution that will still be burning decades later
  3. New discoveries are surrounded by suspicion and ridicule, accompanied by outright rationalized dismissals
  4. It doesn’t matter if you can show people your discovery. It doesn’t matter if they can replicate your discovery in their own lab. Many will still refuse to believe it. We have not moved an inch since the times of Galileo and telescope-denier Cesare Cremonini
  5. Many of them will change their mind only if the discovery is demonstrated using their old techniques
  6. Scientists-discoverers don’t keep their techniques secret
  7. Many discoveries are observed for many years, before somebody realizes there is a new discovery to be made of those observations
  8. Scientists-discoverers are worried about losing their job because of their discovery
  9. And rightly so
  10. They are even worried of being unable to find any job because of their discovery
  11. You need at least two Professors to support the article describing the discovery, before it passes so-called “peer” review
  12. The famous, influential, powerful people invited to deliver the keynote addresses at scientific conferences, they are very likely wrong on any new topic
  13. We have no idea how many Schechtman’s will forever remain unknown, because they didn’t have the luck and the guts to persevere the way Shechtman did

And now for the excerpts:

[…] Since the birth of modern crystallography in 1912, when x-rays were diffracted from a crystal for the first time, until that moment 70 years later, this branch of science had relied on an unchallengeable basic tenet […]

The scientists concluded that there can be no pentagonal symmetry in crystals, since they cannot create periodic order – as anyone who has tried to cover a bathroom floor with five-sided tiles knows. In countless observations over many decades, crystallographers indeed saw only geometric crystals, all of them possessing rotational symmetry.

But on that April day in 1982, when Shechtman looked at the pattern of points created by the crystal of the alloy he had prepared in the lab from aluminum and manganese, he saw a structure that contradicted both rules: the 10 points that appeared through the microscope attested to the existence of pentagonal symmetry; and the immediate conclusion was that the crystal did not possess a periodic structure. Shechtman had discovered a new world, in which there are solid crystals, but the known order was gone. […]

Within days, his peculiar ideas generated suspicion and ridicule, to which he would be subjected for some time […]

“I told everyone who was ready to listen that I had material with pentagonal symmetry. People just laughed at me,” […]

In the months that followed, he tried to persuade his colleagues in the lab that what they were looking at was a previously unknown crystal. But in vain. “I knew my observations were in order. I couldn’t explain the phenomenon, but I knew it was material that no one had seen before me, impossible material according to the laws of crystallography,” he says […]

One day, the administrative director of his research group approached him. “He gave a sheepish smile, placed a textbook on my desk and said, ‘Please read what’s written here.’ I told him that I taught my students from the book, but that I also knew that we’re dealing with something that exceeded the book’s understanding,” Shechtman says. The director returned 24 hours later and asked him to leave the research group, because he was “bringing disgrace” on the members. […]

the researchers at the institute were not able to check the discovery for themselves. Many of them did not know how to work with an electron microscope, which is the most appropriate tool for identifying rotational symmetries in small crystals. Moreover, he notes, “They were not really interested in dealing with it.”

Shechtman also forwarded the findings to a friend, who was about to go on a scientific tour. When the friend returned, Shechtman relates, he brought an array of off-the-wall explanations for the 10 microscopic points, gleaned from colleagues. None of them took seriously the possibility that it was a case of pentagonal symmetry. […]

only one person was ready to listen in earnest: Prof. Ilan Blech […] Shechtman now felt sufficiently confident to publish an article on the subject. Until then, he says, “I was afraid to publish alone, in case it turned out to be nonsense.” […]

Shechtman turned to the senior scientist John Cahn, who had invited him to work in the institute. Cahn initially had reservations, but afterward worked with Shechtman and proposed that they co-author an article. For the mathematical aspects he added a French crystallographer, Denis Gratias, and the three wrote an article that was a concise, refined version of the first article. They added Ilan Blech’s name as a fourth author and sent the article to Physical Review Letters, which also deals with physics. The addition of Cahn’s name turned out to be a winning move: the article appeared in November 1984, within a few weeks of its submission […]

To get researchers to believe him, Shechtman described exactly how to prepare the alloy. “There are people who keep the mode of preparation secret, but I wanted every researcher who had an appropriate laboratory to be able to prepare the material and examine it under an electron microscope within a few days,” […]

despite the success in repeating the experiment in several labs, only a few scientists accepted the thesis of pentagonal symmetry. Leading scientists rejected Shechtman’s conclusions, and towering above all of them was Linus Pauling […]

“There are tens of thousands of chemists in the United States, and Pauling was their star,” Shechtman notes. “He would open the conferences of the American Chemical Society, and quasiperiodic crystals were always his topic. I attended one of the conferences, at Stanford. Thousands of people were there, and he attacked me. He would stand on those platforms and declare, ‘Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.’ […]

In the first years following the discovery, Shechtman’s support came primarily from physicists and mathematicians. But crystallographers had a serious problem with the findings: Shechtman had used an electron microscope, whereas their main tool was the x-ray. “It’s as though a mechanical engineer were to explain to a heart surgeon how to perform an operation,” Shechtman says. “From their point of view, I was not a crystallographer, because I had used a tool they considered imprecise and illegitimate.” […]

in 1987, friends of Shechtman’s from France and Japan succeeded in growing quasi-periodic crystals large enough for x-rays to repeat and verify what he had discovered with the electron microscope: the existence of pentagonal symmetry. […]

“In the forefront of science there is not much difference between religion and science,” Shechtman says. “People harbor beliefs. That’s what happens when people believe something religiously. The argument with Linus Pauling was almost theological.” […]

As his fear of not finding employment faded, Pauling’s assaults became a compliment for Shechtman. “I realized that if it’s Pauling against Shechtman, then at some level we are equals. […]

Prof. Shlomo Ben-Abraham, one of the first Israeli scientists to support the discovery, says, “Until Danny’s discovery, we thought the subject of crystal structure was completely closed. Today, nearly 30 years later, we know we have not even scratched the surface. […]

Prof. Ron Lifshitz, a physicist from Tel Aviv University, describes Shechtman’s discovery as “a scientific revolution that is still in going on.” Science, he says, must now answer questions that were once thought to be basic and closed, such as what a crystal is, alongside new questions, such as how the nonperiodic structure influences the qualities of those materials. […]

For decades, crystallography clung to a mistaken description of the physical world, which was presented as a solid, total truth. On the other hand, that same science was able to acknowledge its mistake and refute long-held basic assumptions within a relatively short time, once the theory was shown to be inconsistent with reality. Still, it was necessary to have someone who is capable of shouldering the revolution.

Prof. Ben-Abraham explains Shechtman’s strength: “The greatness of a discoverer lies in knowing what he has discovered. People encounter things and ignore them for one reason or another. I know of four documented cases in which people found this before Danny.” However, he notes, because all the books state that pentagonal symmetry is inconsistent with periodicity of crystals, the researchers ignored what they saw. […]

  1. 2011/10/06 at 13:53

    Scientific research in a modern sense is involved in the controlled redistribution of power, also but not only monetary. As such it’s of course mainly a bunch of boys making sure only their stuff is taken care of.

    We need grants to be distributed by lots and we need it fast.

  2. diogenes
    2011/10/06 at 13:11

    Based on the number of times this meme occurs, you would think that scientists would try to change their occupational goggles. The fact remains that it is next-to-impossible to overturn a consensus view once it has formed and, despite the number of paradigm shifts that happen, people in the field still resist the chance to resist the prison of the orthodox – stomach ulcers, this case, Laithwaite and gyroscopes…..It takes incredible persistence to overturn the entrenched views, because they are held by people wedded to their opinions – has Mann, for example, ever entertained a thought that he might not be very good at stats?

  3. 2011/10/06 at 05:27


  4. Sundance
    2011/10/05 at 22:44

    ” …the researchers ignored what they saw. […]”

    It makes me wonder how much climate scientists overlook because they only seek answers through CO2 colored glasses due to peer pressure or access to publications? After years in the CO2 echo chamber I wonder if their brain automatically dismisses conflicting information seeing only what it wants to see, similar to the McGurk effect?

    • Seele
      2011/10/08 at 13:14

      It doesn’t work for me. Maybe it’s because I am a musician, or maybe I have watched too many bad kung-fu movies. The ‘ba’ and the ‘fa’ come out as separate and simultaneous streams of information. But point taken anyway.

      It strikes me from the Schechtman case, and many others, that there is strong positive reinforcement at play in the way that people hold their beliefs. In some contexts, this is a good thing, but in the scientific endeavour it can clearly be harmful. It ought to be possible to map out all the pros and cons of a position in logical and objective way so that input that is outside the mainstream is not simply eradicated, but held as what Karl Popper called ‘marked knowledge’. That is, it ought to be treated with a kind of benevolent neglect until such time as it is refuted or vindicated.

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