Chemistry's Cinderella Story WSJ.com Review & Outlook 10/10/11
A Nobel winner who challenged dogma.
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 scientific community, however, would often prefer to keep its Cinderellas in the attic. Just ask Israel's Dan Shechtman.
Mr. Shechtman, who last week won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is credited with the discovery in 1982 of quasicrystals, patterned but nonrepeating atomic structures that resemble the mosaics found in medieval Islamic art. For observing under an electron microscope what the scientific community held to be a physical impossibility, Mr. Shechtman was accused of "bringing disgrace" on his lab. Linus Pauling, the chemistry (and peace) Nobelist, called the discovery "nonsense" and denounced Mr. Shechtman as a "quasi-scientist." It took two years before a scientific journal would deign to publish his findings.
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.
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. Meantime, it's worth noting that, as with Cinderella, Mr. Shechtman's story has a happy ending. No doubt this will turn out to be true for others who dare to think different.