Of Expanding Universes and Quasicrystals; What Some Non-Muslims Like to Do With Their Time
Today I honour two of the Nobel prizewinners for 2011 - Brian Schmidt, an astronomer of dual American and Australian citizenship who is a joint winnter of the 2011 Nobel physics prize for research into supernovae, and the Israeli scientist, Daniel Schechtman, whose discovery of quasicrystals has earned him the 2011 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
I place them together because their work beautifully illustrates this quote by Isaac Asimov: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka", but "That's funny...".
First, as published in Australia's ABC online, the story of Brian Schmidt, the young American who married an Australian, joined the ANU, and ended up jointer winner of a Nobel Prize.
'Australian National University astronomer Brian Schmidt has been named a joint winner of the 2011 Nobel Physics prize for his research into supernovae.
'The prize was awarded "for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae", the Nobel Committee for Physics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
'When hearing the news, 44 year old Professor Schmidt said winning "sort of feels like when my children were born."
'He told Swedish public broadcaster SVT that he was "weak in the knees, really excited...
"I did not expect it...I guess it's one of these things you expect is probably not going to happen", he said.
'Half of the 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.5 million) prize money went to US citizen Saul Perlmutter and the other half to Professor Schmidt and US scientist Adam Riess.
"They have studied several dozen exploding stars, called supernovae, and discovered that the universe is expanding at an ever-accelerating rate", the Nobel committee said.
"The discovery came as a complete surprise, even to the laureates themselves.
'Professor Schmidt said at first the discovery seemed too crazy to be true.
"we ended up telling the world we have this crazy result, the universe is speeding up", Professor Schmidt said.
"It seemed too crazy to be right and I think we were a little scared."
'Thank you Australia'.
'Professor Schmidt, a joint US-Australian citizen, said he may not have become a Nobel winner if he had not met his Australian wife at Harvard and come to live in the country 17 years ago.
"For me, I think being in Australia was probably, you know, absolutely essential for being part of this", he said.
"I came here at the age of 27 and was able, and was backed with the resources and just the status, to run an international team.
"And you know that's a uniquely Australian thing.
I wouldn't say it was uniquely Australian. But I'm glad somebody saw the potential of what Professor Schmidt could do, back when he was a young fellow, and took the gamble of turning him and his mates loose to do pure science to their hearts' content. - CM
"So I guess I am very grateful to ANU and Australia in general for all the support I got here as a very young person.
'Professor Schmidt said one of the reasons he was so readily willing to come to Australia was the opportunity to work at Mt Stromlo, which he described as "one of the great astronomical institutions in the world".
How many people who watch movies like 'Crocodile Dundee' would associate Australia with world-class astronomy and astrophysics? And yet: the European phase of this continent's human history began with astronomy. The 'cover' story for Captain Cook's voyage to look for Terra Incognita in the South Seas was...a brief to observe the Transit of Venus. - CM
'A father of two teenage sons, Professor Schmidt said when he was officially informed that he had won the prize, "The Nobel Prize guy said 'It was nice to have someone young'.'
'Asked whether he was young enough to win it again, Professor Schmidt said, "I think once in a lifetime is enough."
'ANU vice-chancellor, Professor Ian Young, says the Nobel Prize winning work has helped to unveil a universe that, to a large extent, was unknown to science.
"He has shown that what we see in the skies is but a tiny fraction of what is really out there. Brian reminds us of the infinite mysteries yet to be understood", he said.
'The breakthrough came in 1998, when one research team headed by Professor Perlmutter and another led by Professor Schmidt and accompanied by Professor Riess reached the same astounding conclusion that the expansion of the universe was rapidly accelerating.
"If the expansion continues to speed up, the universe will end in ice", the Nobel jury said.
'The jury added that their discovery had changed mankind's understanding of the universe.
'Scientists have known since the 1920s that the universe is expanding, as a result of the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago.
'But the discovery that this process is accelerating - and not slowing as many thought - rocked the research community.
'The acceleration is thought to be driven by dark energy, although cosmologists have little idea what that is.
'They estimate that dark energy - a kind of inverse gravity, repelling matter that comes close to it - accounts for around 3/4 of the universe.
'By looking at a certain kind of supernova, the astronomers discovered a benchmark for the movement of light.
'Their work confirms a theory first proposed by Albert Einstein, which he dubbed the cosmological constant.
'The trio will receive their prize at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.'
It's kind of nice to reflect that the relationship between Australia and America is not only about a military/ political alliance - young men trying to watch each other's backs in the hellhole that is Islamic Afghanistan - but also functions at the level of culture and intellectual endeavour: an Australian university giving opportunity and resources to a young American astronomer who would go on to become a Nobel prize winner.
And now for the story of Daniel Schechtman, the man who has gained Israel her tenth Nobel prize (the fourth awarded for discoveries in Chemistry).
The ABC reported the news as follows (click on the link; there's a very nice colour picture of a quasicrystal structure) -
'Atomic mosaic' wins chemistry Nobel'
'An Israeli scientist says he endured years of ridicule for the discovery which has now won him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
'Thirty years ago Daniel Schechtman discovered quasicrystals - a new form of crystal that had a structure many scientists said at the time was impossible.
'For years his peers rejected and ridiculed his findings, with the head of his laboratory handing him a textbook in crystallography and suggesting he read it.
'At one point Professor Schechtman was even branded a disgrace and asked to leave his research group at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology.
'But since then the Professor's quasicrystals have helped change the way chemists conceive of solid matter.
'His singular discovery has now won him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
"His battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter", the Nobel jury said.
'Quasicrystals, described by the Nobel jury as "a remarkable mosaic of atoms", are patterns that are highly ordered and symmetrical but which do not repeat themselves.
'To the untrained eye, they look like abstract Islamic art.
Can we not read even one news story these days without the obligatory complimentary reference to Islam? Cue the da'wa artists on a thousand Islamic websites (each madder than the one before it) claiming that Professor Schechtman's work was anticipated by Muslim tile-layers...- CM
'Quasicrystals have been found in the lab and some have been discovered to occur naturally in minerals.
'Their closely-packed structure helps them strengthen materials, with potential outlets in consumer products such as frying pans and machines such as diesel engines, which experience high heat and mechanical stress.
Can anyone say, military applications?....Isn't it fun when disinterested and humble contemplation of the structure of matter happens to lead to the making of a better frying pan - or, perhaps, a better engine for a tank? I might add that this habit we non-Muslims have, of asking questions 'outside the box' and thinking about things, instead of banging our heads on the floor five times a day and rote-memorizing swathes of bloodcurdling exhortations to violence, does incidentally allow us to invent scary military technology to keep us followers of the 'religion of peace' (be it Judaism or Christianity) just one jump ahead of the scimitar-waving adherents of the Religion of Blood and War. - CM
'Professor Schechtman's research "has fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter", the jury said.''
'His discovery was "extremely controversial", the Nobel committee said, noting that the atoms were "arranged in a manner that was contrary (sic: perhaps this should read 'was previously thought to be contrary' - CM) to the laws of nature".
'The pattern was "considered just as impossible as creating a football using only six-cornered polygons, when a sphere needs both five and six-cornered polygons".
'Professor Schechtman, born in 1941, is currently a professor at [the] Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, where he holds the Philip Tobias Chair.
'He will receive the 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.5 million) award at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10...
'Professor Schechtman is the 10th Israeli to win a Nobel Prize and the fourth to win the Chemistry prize."
'Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the Professor has made every Israeli happy and every Jew in the world proud."
is a list of the other Israelis who have won Nobel prizes.
And here are some excerpts from the Jerusalem Post article about Schechtman, Judy Siegel-Itzkovich reporting:
'Technion's Schechtman becomes nation's 10th Nobel laureate'.
'Materials scientist overcame ridicule to show world the seriousness of his new type of crystal.
'Netanyahu: Prize reflects intellect of our people.
'Israel's 10th Nobel Prize - and fourth in chemistry - was awarded on Wednesday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to Prof Dan Schechtman, a materials science scientist at Haifa's Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.
'His discovery in 1982 that atoms in rigid crystals can be packed together in unusual ways led tot he development of extremely strong materials from metal surgical tools and razor blades to diesel engines and as protective coatings and metal alloys.
'What became known as quasiperiodic or quasicrystals do not rust or become oxidized and have almost no surface friction.
'The Tel Aviv-born scientist, who is also an associate of the US Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory and a professor at Iowa State University
So here again, as in the story of Australia's Professor Schmidt, we see the fruit born of an alliance between the USA and one of her small free-world allies, an alliance - indeed a friendship - that is active as much in the world of intellect, in the academy and the laboratory, as in the field of politics and war. - CM
found that atoms in crystals could be structured in an unrepeatable pattern that looked like the Arab-style floor mosaics. The structure was described by the Nobel committee as "the fascinating mosaics of the Arabic world reproduced at the level of atoms".
Nevertheless it was an Israeli Jew who discovered quasicrystals, not a Muslim. - CM'
'As scientists all believed until then that crystal patterns had to be repetitious to be crystals, Schechtman was ridiculed and treated with hostility for his ideas for years, even by his friends and colleagues. Weizman Institute of Science Prof Ada Yonath, who won for Israel a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009, was similarly the butt of jokes for her pioneering work on the structure in ribosomes in the cell.
'Even Prof Linus Pauling, the Americal double-Nobel laureate who made important discoveries in quantum chemistry and molecular biology and created controversy for his advocacy in high-dose Vitamin C, claimed Schechtman was "talking nonsense".
Which just goes to show that even Nobel prize winners in science can get things wrong. - CM
'Pauling, until his death in 1994, was the only one who stubbornly refused to recognize the Technion scientist's discovery.
'Upon hearing the announcement, Schechtman was forthcoming in sharing the honor.
"I think this is a great day for me, of course, but also a great day for the country", he said at a press conference.
'The prize does not belong to him alone, he continued.
"There are thousands of scientists that research the subject I developed, and I'm sure they all see the prize as an achievement for themselves as well, and indeed they deserve it...
"The 70 year old Schechtman, married and the father of four, earned his three degrees at the Technion. He was on sabbatical almost three decades ago at the US National Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC, when he discovered the icosahedral phase, which opened the new field of quasiperiodic crystals.
'After receiving his doctorate, Schechtman was an NRC fellow at the Aerospace Research Laboratories at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where for three years he studied the microstructure and physical metallurgy of titanium aluminides.
'He joined the Technion's department of materials engineering in 1975. During his sabbatical in the early 1980s at Johns Hopkins University, he discovered the icosahedral phase. he was amazed to discover in an electron microscope that the new crystal he had discovered was symmetrical and could be turned around five times without looking different; this was considered "impossible" according to existing theory.
'Schechtman was turned down by the Journal of Applied Physics which claimed that his discovery "would not interest physicists"; he sent it to Metallurgical Transactions, which accepted his paper, but its editors said it would take a year to publish.
'He refused to wait, but instead wrote a more abbreviated article for Physical Review Letters, along with three colleagues, that was published within a few weeks and aroused much interest and controversy among physicists and then chemists and mathematicians.
'Today hundreds of synthetic materials with the unusual structure have been produced. Conferences on the subject are held annually, and more than 40 scientific volumes have been published in the field...
"President Shimon Peres called Schechtman to congratulate him. "Your win is promising and gives hope. There are not many nations who have won so many Nobel prizes. You have given the state of Israel a wonderful gift...
"You provide hope and serve as an example to the younger generation. You demonstrate that a thinking person who is hardworking and brave can make ground-breaking scientific discoveries".
'The President stressed that three of the 10 Israeli Nobel Prize winners are graduates of the Technion, and that this is a badge of honor for the Technion and for higher education in Israel...".
One sees the full, abysmal, and indeed suicidal stupidity of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions campaign against Israel, when one contemplates the career and achievements of someone like Professor Schechtman - CM