Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists"

Last week, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Professor Dan Shechtman of Israel's Technion, who discovered and officially reported the first verified quasicrystals -- materials with a structure that is "ordered" or "patterned" but nonrepeating and not symmetrical (unlike true crystals).

As explained in this recent "Review & Outlook" article* entitled "Chemistry's Cinderella Story" in the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal, Professor Shechtman's discovery took place in 1982, when the scientific community adamantly held that such a structure was a physical impossibility. For daring to utter his interpretation of the evidence he had found, Professor Shechtman endured blistering hostility, and it in fact took him two years to even get a scientific journal to publish his findings.

Multiple Nobel laureate Linus Pauling (1901 - 1994), one of the most influential figures in chemistry of all time, dismissed Professor Shechtman's interpretation with the scathing remark that "there is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists."

Write the Journal's editorial staff:
Today, Mr. Shechtman's observations have been fully validated and quasicrystals are beginning to have commercial applications. But his story is a reminder that a consensus of scientists is no substitute for, and often a bar to, great science. That's especially so when the consensus hardens into a dogmatic and self-satisfied enterprise.
This is an incredibly important point to keep in mind, and the courageous pursuit of the truth by Dan Shechtman should be an inspiration to us all, and a reminder of the principle that consensus (even among those at the pinnacle of a field) does not always equal correctness.

At the end of their reflection upon Mr. Shechtman's achievement, the Journal editors ask "Isn't there another field in which a similar kind of consensus has taken hold, with similarly unpleasant consequences for those who question its core assumptions? Take a guess." We're not sure exactly what field they have in mind, but it is quite likely that this pattern of ossified opinion held by a few dogmatic defenders of orthodoxy, who sneer at anyone who would dare to challenge the foundations of the current model, repeats itself quite broadly across the entire spectrum of academia (though perhaps without translational symmetry).

Perhaps, based on their focus on matters economic and financial, the Journal editors have in mind some of the dogmas of economics or investment theory. Then again, they begin their article with an ode to past thinkers in other fields that they see as previous "Cinderella stories," saying, "When it comes to scientific discovery, the world loves a Cinderella story: The lone genius, from Galileo to Darwin to Wegener, who bucks the received wisdom of his field and makes us see the world anew."

The last two names in this trio -- one the proponent of a model of biological evolution, and the other the proponent of a model of geological plate tectonics -- did indeed endure scorn to stand up for what they believed was the best interpretation for the evidence that they saw. However, it is also apparent that today, over a hundred years after each of them first introduced their controversial interpretations to a skeptical scientific community, their once-novel proposals have now become the reigning orthodoxy, with a consensus every bit as hardened and dogmatic as the opposition these theories once faced themselves.

Although extensive evidence exists that casts doubt upon the interpretations put forth by Darwin in biology and Wegener in geology, those who dare to challenge these reigning models court ridicule, often labeled with derogatory terms similar to those employed by Pauling against Shechtman, in an attempt to marginalize them, and to take away their ability to effectively criticize what is already "known and proven." For example, those who challenge the traditional timeline of mankind's ancient past are often labeled as practitioners of "pseudoarchaeology" -- a term quite reminiscent of Pauling's "quasi-scientists" barb.

The 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry should be an encouragement to all those who are laboring to determine the truth behind mankind's ancient history, even in the face of ferocious resistance from the defenders of orthodoxy. In fact, it should encourage more people to apply their talents and abilities to this important field of study. It just might happen that the critics will eventually be proven wrong and the consensus swing around to a new way of looking at the world. In fact, it has happened quite often in the past, including the recent past, as new Nobel laureate Dan Shechtman can attest.

Congratulations to him and to his family and colleagues!

* A subscription is required to read many articles in the Wall Street Journal. If the link above does not take you to the full article entitled "Chemistry's Cinderella Story," you can read a "free sample of exclusive subscriber content" by doing a regular search for the article's title and clicking on a link that turns up in the search. Here is a link to the results from a popular search engine -- clicking on the second result in the list should take you to the full editorial about the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.