The Nobel Legacy

The story of quasicrystals

Dan Shechtman discovered quasiperiodic crystals in April 1982, as a visiting scholar at the National Bureau of Standards in Maryland, USA. This new form of matter - also known as quasicrystals or Shechtmanite - possesses some unique and remarkable crystallographic and physical properties, embodying a novel kind of crystalline order. His findings demonstrated a clear diffraction pattern with a fivefold symmetry. The pattern was recorded from an aluminum-manganese (Al-Mn) alloy which he had rapidly cooled after melting.

(l-r) John Werner Cahn, Dan Shechtman, Ilan Blech and Denis Gratias together on the occasion of an international congress on quasicrystals in France, 1995.
© CNRS Photothèque - Pierre Grumberg*

Dan Shechtman discovered quasiperiodic crystals in April 1982, as a visiting scholar at the National Bureau of Standards in Maryland, USA. This new form of matter - also known as quasicrystals or Shechtmanite – possesses some unique and remarkable crystallographic and physical properties, embodying a novel kind of crystalline order. His findings demonstrated a clear diffraction pattern with a fivefold symmetry. The pattern was recorded from an aluminum-manganese (Al-Mn) alloy which he had rapidly cooled after melting.

Quasicrystal structure can be understood through the mathematical theory of tiling. Initially, however, Shechtman’s discovery was viewed with skepticism. “The scandal of polywater was still in the air, and I feared for my scientific and academic career,” says Shechtman.

Shechtman returned to Technion, where Dr. Ilan Blech was the only colleague who not only believed in him but who agreed to cooperate with him. Blech was able to decipher Shechtman’s experimental findings and offered an explanation, known as the Icosahedral Glass Model. Together, the researchers wrote an article that contained the model and the experimental results, and submitted it to the Journal of Applied Physics in the summer of 1984.
The paper was rejected, resubmitted to the journal Metallurgical Transactions, and was published in 1985.

In November 1984, Physical Review Letters published Shechtman’s discovery in a scientific paper co-authored with three other scientists: Ilan Blech (Israel), Denis Gratias (France) and John Cahn (USA). Wider acclaim followed, mainly from physicists and mathematicians and later from crystallographers.
Pioneering contributors to the field of quasicrystals are Prof. Dov Levine of the Technion Faculty of Physics and Prof. Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University. They made the connection between a theoretical tenfold symmetry model proposed by Prof. Alan Mackay and Shechtman’s diffraction pattern, and developed the mathematical model for the structure of non-periodic icosahedral phases found in metallic alloys. Steinhardt and Levine published an article in 1984 where they described quasicrystals and their aperiodic mosaics. Quasicrystals got their name in this article.

In August 1986, David R. Nelson wrote in Scientific American, “Shechtmanite quasicrystals are no mere curiosity. The study of quasicrystals has tied together two existing branches of theory: the theory of metallic glasses and the mathematical theory of aperiodic tilings. In doing so it has brought new and powerful tools to bear on the study of metallic alloys. Questions about long- and short-range icosahedral order should occupy solid-state physicists and materials scientists for some time to come.”

Dov Levine (left) with Paul Steinhardt (right) at the Technion Faculty of Physics in 2006.


Today, over 40 scientific books have been dedicated to quasiperiodic crystals, and the International Union of Crystallography has changed its basic definition of a crystal, reducing it to the ability to produce a clear-cut diffraction pattern and acknowledging that crystallographic order can be either periodic or aperiodic.

Saturday 10 December: Distinguished Prof. Dan Shechtman will receive his Nobel Prize in Chemistry from His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, on Saturday 10 December. The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony is broadcast live from the Stockholm Concert Hall, at 4:30 p.m. CET.