Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The danger in accepting the status quo (Dan Shechtman, Linus Pauling, and Johns Hopkins)


If you look at the biography of Dan Shechtman, recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, his time at Johns Hopkins University is described as follows:

In 1981-l983 he was on Sabbatical at the Johns Hopkins University, where he studied rapidly solidified aluminum transition metal alloys (joint program with NBS). During this study he discovered the Icosahedral Phase which opened the new field of quasiperiodic crystals.

And because science is always open to new discoveries, his work was immediately praised...not.

The scientific community is just like any other bureaucratic community. Although Shechtman glosses over it in his official biography, his discovery while at Johns Hopkins caused some controversy:

"People just laughed at me," Shechtman recalled in an interview this year with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noting how Linus Pauling, a colossus of science and double Nobel laureate, mounted a frightening "crusade" against him, saying: "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists."

After telling Shechtman to go back and read the textbook, the head of his research group asked him to leave for "bringing disgrace" on the team. "I felt rejected," Shachtman remembered.

It took years for Shechtman's discovery to be accepted by the scientific community. Well, most of the scientific community.

Double Nobel winner Linus Pauling was among those who never accepted the findings.

Johns Hopkins, which has issued several news releases congratulating Nobel Physics winner Adam Riess, has to my knowledge not congratulated Shechtman on his win.
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