A case of Kuhn, quasicrystals & communication – Part IV

Dan Shechtman won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2011. This led to an explosion of interest on the subject of QCs and Shechtman’s travails in getting the theory validated.

Numerous publications, from Reuters to The Hindu, published articles and reports. In fact, The Guardian ran an online article giving a blow-by-blow account of how the author, Ian Sample, attempted to contact Shechtman while the events succeeding the announcement of the prize unfolded.

All this attention served as a consummation of the events that started to avalanche in 1982. Today, QCs are synonymous with the interesting possibilities of materials science as much as with perseverance, dedication, humility, and an open mind.

Since the acceptance of the fact of QCs, the Israeli chemist has gone on to win Physics Award of the Friedenberg Fund (1986), the Rothschild Prize in engineering (1990), the Weizmann Science Award (1993), the 1998 Israel Prize for Physics, the prestigious Wolf Prize in Physics (1998), and the EMET Prize in chemistry (2002).

As Pauling’s influence on the scientific community faded with Shechtman’s growing recognition, his death in 1994 did still mark the complete lack of opposition to an idea that had long since gained mainstream acceptance. The swing in Shechtman’s favour, unsurprisingly, began with the observation of QCs and the icosahedral phase in other laboratories around the world.

Interestingly, Indian scientists were among the forerunners in confirming the existence of QCs. As early as in 1985, when the paper published by Shechtman and others in the Physical Review Letters was just a year old, S Ranganathan and Kamanio Chattopadhyay (amongst others), two of India’s preeminent crystallographers, published a paper in Current Science announcing the discovery of materials that exhibited decagonal symmetry. Such materials are two-dimensional QCs with periodicity exhibited in one of those dimensions.

The story of QCs is most important as a post-Second-World-War incidence of a paradigm shift occurring in a field of science easily a few centuries old.

No other discovery has rattled scientists as much in these years, and since the Shechtman-Pauling episode, academic peers have been more receptive of dissonant findings. At the same time, credit must be given to the rapid advancements in technology and human knowledge of statistical techniques: without them, the startling quickness with which each hypothesis can be tested today wouldn’t have been possible.

The analysis of the media representation of the discovery of quasicrystals with respect to Thomas Kuhn’s epistemological contentions in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was an attempt to understand his standpoints by exploring more of what went on in the physical chemistry circles of the 1980s.

While there remains the unresolved discrepancy – whether knowledge is non-accumulative simply because the information founding it has not been available before – Kuhn’s propositions hold in terms of the identification of the anomaly, the mounting of the crisis period, the communication breakdown within scientific circles, the shift from normal science to cutting-edge science, and the eventual acceptance of a new paradigm and the discarding of the old one.

Consequently, it appears that science journalists have indeed taken note of these developments in terms of The Structure. Thus, the book’s influence on science journalism can be held to be persistent, and is definitely evident.