Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for his discovery of a new form of crystal whose patterns and configuration defied previously held laws of nature and altered chemists' understanding of solid matter.
The Tel Aviv-born professor's 1982 discovery of what would become known as quasicrystals provoked controversy in his field, demonstrating that atoms in some crystals were packed in patterns that could not be repeated, which was once thought impossible.
"His discovery was extremely controversial," the Nobel committee for chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted in announcing the prize, which includes a $1.4-million award. "In the course of defending his findings, he was asked to leave his research group. However, his battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter."
Since Shechtman's discovery, scientists have found naturally occurring quasicrystals in minerals from a Russian river and a certain form of steel. They have also been produced in labs. Scientists are searching for practical applications in goods varying from diesel engines to frying pans.
In a phone interview, Shechtman recounted the moment when he realized that the atomic structure in the chilled molten metal he was studying with an electron microscope manifested as a pattern of dots that didn't fit with the known laws of nature or the definition of crystal structure.
The crystal, he soon determined, had fivefold symmetry; in other words, it looked the same each time the crystal was rotated one-fifth of a full circle under the microscope.
Crystals can show threefold, fourfold or sixfold symmetry, but fivefold was thought to be impossible.
"This was not allowed by the theory. It couldn't be," Shechtman said. "So this was the beginning of a new science."
Shechtman is Israel's 10th Nobel laureate and the fourth to win for chemistry in the country's 63-year history. Three Israeli prime ministers have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At a celebratory news conference in Haifa, Shechtman described receiving a flood of phone calls and email from friends and colleagues. "Naturally this is a great day for me, but it's also a great day for science."
His wife, Tsipi Shechtman, said such accolades were a long time in coming. His groundbreaking discovery — made in a lab outside Washington during a sabbatical in the U.S. — led to a painful period of professional isolation and criticism by fellow scientists who believed his findings were incorrect.
"No one believed him at the time, and he went through several difficult years, but he withstood these and I am proud that he did," she told Israel Radio.
Shechtman studied and still teaches at Haifa's Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. He also works at Iowa State University and the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory on the Iowa State campus.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Shechtman to offer congratulations "on behalf of the citizens of Israel, for your award, which expresses the intellect of our people. Every Israeli is happy today and every Jew in the world is proud."
Sanders reported from Jerusalem and Khan from Los Angeles.