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Culture Science

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.

Categories
Culture Science

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.

Categories
Culture Science

A case of Kuhn, quasicrystals & communication – Part II

Did science journalists find QCs anomalous? Did they report the crisis period as it happened or as an isolated incident? Whether they did or did not will be indicative of Kuhn’s influence on science journalism as well as a reflection of The Structure’s influence on the scientific community.

In the early days of crystallography, when the arrangements of molecules was thought to be simpler, each one was thought to occupy a point in two-dimensional (2D) space, which were then stacked one on top of another to give rise to the crystal. However, as time passed and imaginative chemists and mathematicians began to participate in the attempts to deduce perfectly the crystal lattice, the idea of a three-dimensional (3D) lattice began to catch on.

At the same time, scientists also found that there were many materials, like some powders, which did not restrict their molecules to any arrangement and instead left them to disperse themselves chaotically. The former were called crystalline, the latter amorphous (“without form”).

All substances, it was agreed, had to be either crystalline – with structure – or amorphous – without it. A more physical definition was adopted from Euclid’s Stoicheia (Elements, c. 300 BC): that the crystal lattice of all crystalline substances had to exhibit translational symmetry and rotational symmetry, and that all amorphous substances couldn’t exhibit either.

An arrangement exhibits translational symmetry if it looks the same after being moved in any direction through a specific distance. Similarly, rotational symmetry is when the arrangement looks the same after being rotated through some angle.)

In an article titled ‘Puzzling Crystals Plunge Scientists Into Uncertainty’ published in The New York Times on July 30, 1985, Pulitzer-prize winning science journalist Malcolm W Browne wrote that “the discovery of a new type of crystal that violates some of the accepted rules has touched off an explosion of conjecture and research…” referring to QCs.

Malcolm W. Browne

Paper a day on the subject

In the article, Browne writes that Shechtman’s finding (though not explicitly credited) has “galvanized microstructure analysts, mathematicians, metallurgists and physicists in at least eight countries.”

This observation points at the discovery’s anomalous nature since, from an empirical point of view, Browne suggests that such a large number of scientists from fields as diverse have not come together to understand anything in recent times. In fact, he goes on to remark that according to one estimate, a paper a day was being published on the subject.

Getting one’s paper published by an academic journal worldwide is important to any scientist because it formally establishes primacy. That is, once a paper has been published by a journal, then the contents of the paper are attributed to the paper’s authors and none else.

Since no two journals will accept the same paper for publication (a kind of double jeopardy), a paper a day implies that distinct solutions were presented each day. Therefore, Browne seems to claim in his article, in the framework of Kuhn’s positions, that scientists were quite excited about the discovery of a phenomenon that violated a longstanding paradigm.

Shechtman’s paper had been published in the prestigious Physical Review Letters, which is in turn published by the American Physical Society from Maryland, USA, in the 20th issue of its 53rd volume, 1984 – but not without its share of problems.

Istvan Hargittai, a reputed crystallographer with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, described a first-hand account of the years 1982 to 1984 in Shechtman’s life in the April 2011 issue of Structural Chemistry. In these accounts, he says that,

Once Shechtman had completed his experiment, he became very lonely as every scientific discoverer does: the discoverer knows something nobody else does.

In Shechtman’s case, however, this loneliness was compounded by two aspects of his discovery that made it difficult for him to communicate with his peers about it. First: To him, it was such an important discovery that he wanted desperately to inquire about its possibilities to those established in the field – and the latter dismissed his claims as specious.

Second: the fact that he couldn’t conclusively explain what he himself had found troubled him, kept him from publishing his results.

At the time, Hargittai was a friend of a British crystallographer named Alan Mackay, from the Birkbeck College in London. Mackay had, a few years earlier, noted the work of mathematician Roger Penrose, who had created a pattern in which pentagons of different sizes were used to tile a 2D space completely (Penrose had derived inspiration from the work of the 16th century astronomer Johannes Kepler).

In other words, Penrose had produced theoretically a planar version of what Shechtman was looking for, what would help him resolve his personal crisis. Mackay, in turn, had attempted to produce a diffraction pattern simulated on the Penrose tiles, assuming that what was true for 2D-space could be true for 3D-space as well.

An example of a Penrose tiling

By the time Mackay had communicated this development to Hargittai, Shechtman had – unaware of them – already discovered QCs.

There was another investigation ongoing at the University of Pennsylvania’s physics department: Dov Levine, pursuing his PhD under the guidance of Paul Steinhardt, had developed a 3D model of the Penrose tiles – again, unaware of Shechtman’s and Mackay’s works.

Thus, it is conspicuous how the anomalous nature of discoveries – which are unprecedented by definition because, otherwise, they would be expected – facilitates a communication-breakdown within the scientific community. In the case of Levine, who was eager to publish his findings, Steinhardt advised caution to avoid the ignominy that might arise out of publishing findings that are not fully explicable.

In the meantime, Shechtman had found an interested listener in Ilan Blech, another crystallographer at NBS. They prepared a paper together to send to the Journal of Applied Physics in 1984 after deciding that it was imperative to get across to as many scientists as possible in the search for an explanation for the structure of QCs.

However, since they had no explanation of their own, the paper had to be buried “under a mountain of information about alloys,” which prompted the Journal to write back saying the paper “would not interest physicists.”

Shechtman and Blech realized that, as a consequence of reporting such a result, they would have to spruce up its presentation. Shechtman invited veteran NBS crystallographer John Cahn, and Cahn in turn invited Denis Gratias, a French crystallographer, to join the team.

Even though Cahn had been sceptical of the possibility of QCs, he had since changed his mind in the last two years, and his presence awarded some credibility to the contents of the paper. After Gratias restructured the mathematics in the paper, it was finally accepted for publication in the Physical Review Letters on November 12, 1984.

(Clockwise from top-left corner) Danny Shechtman, Istvan Hargittai, Roger Penrose, Paul Steinhardt, and Dov Levine with Steinhardt

And by the time Browne’s article appeared a year later, it is safe to assume that at least 50-70 papers on the subject were published in the period. Whether this was a rush to accumulate anomalies or to discredit the finding is immaterial: the threat to the existing paradigm was perceptible and scientists felt the need to do something about it; and Browne’s noting of the same is proof that science journalists noted the need, too.

In fact, how much of an anomaly is a finding that has been accepted for publication? Because after it has been carefully vetted and published, it becomes as good as fact: other scientists can now found their work upon on it, and at the time of publication of their papers, cite the parent paper as authority.

However, it must be noted that there are important exceptions, such as the infamous Fleischmann-Pons experiment in cold fusion in 1989-1990. For these reasons, let it be that a paradigm is considered to have entered a crisis period only after it is established that it cannot be “tweaked” after each discovery and allowed to continue.

Three years of falsifications

Browne, too, seems to conclude that despite a definite discovery having been made three years earlier,

… only recently has experimental evidence overwhelmed the initial skepticism of the scientific community that such a form of matter could exist.

For three years, the community could not allow a discovery to pass, and subjected it repeatedly to tests of falsifications. A similar remark comes from science writer and crystallographer Paul Steinhardt, Levine’s PhD mentor, who, in a paper titled ‘New perspectives on forbidden symmetries, quasicrystals and Penrose tilings’, remarked upon the need for “a new appreciation for the subtleties of crystallographically forbidden symmetries.”

Shechtman’s QCs exhibited rotational symmetry but not a translational one. In other words, they demanded to be placed squarely between crystalline and amorphous substances, sending researchers scurrying for an explanation.

In a period of such turmoil, Browne’s article states that some researchers were willing to consider the arrangement as existing in six-dimensional (6D) hyperspace rather than in 3D space-time.

A hexeract (or, a geopeton)

Now, someone within the community had considered physical hyperspace to be an explanation way back in 1985. Even though mathematical hyperspace as a theory had been around since the days of Bernhard Riemann (Habilitationsschrift, 1854) and Ludwig Schläfli (Theorie der vielfachen Kontinuität, 1852), the notion of physical hyperspatial theory with a correspondence to physical chemistry is still nascent at best.

Therefore, Browne’s suggestion only seems to supplant his narrative of intellectual turbulence, that scientists had stumbled upon a phenomenon so anomalous that it alone was prompting crisis.

Conclusion

Did science journalists find QCs anomalous? Yes, they did. Browne, Hargittai and Steinhardt, amongst others, were quick to identify the anomalous nature of the newly discovered material and point it out through newspaper reports and articles published within the scientific community.

Thomas Kuhn’s position that scientists will attempt to denounce a paradigm-shift-inducing theory before they themselves are forced to shift is reflected in the writers’ accounts of Dan Shechtman in the days leading up to and just after his discovery.

Did they, the journalists, report the crisis period as it happened or as an isolated incident? That they could identify the onset of a crisis as it happened indicates that they did recognize it for what it was. However, it remains to be seen whether these confirmations validate Kuhn’s hypothesis in their entirety.

Categories
Culture Science

A case of Kuhn, quasicrystals & communication – Part II

Did science journalists find QCs anomalous? Did they report the crisis period as it happened or as an isolated incident? Whether they did or did not will be indicative of Kuhn’s influence on science journalism as well as a reflection of The Structure’s influence on the scientific community.

In the early days of crystallography, when the arrangements of molecules was thought to be simpler, each one was thought to occupy a point in two-dimensional (2D) space, which were then stacked one on top of another to give rise to the crystal. However, as time passed and imaginative chemists and mathematicians began to participate in the attempts to deduce perfectly the crystal lattice, the idea of a three-dimensional (3D) lattice began to catch on.

At the same time, scientists also found that there were many materials, like some powders, which did not restrict their molecules to any arrangement and instead left them to disperse themselves chaotically. The former were called crystalline, the latter amorphous (“without form”).

All substances, it was agreed, had to be either crystalline – with structure – or amorphous – without it. A more physical definition was adopted from Euclid’s Stoicheia (Elements, c. 300 BC): that the crystal lattice of all crystalline substances had to exhibit translational symmetry and rotational symmetry, and that all amorphous substances couldn’t exhibit either.

An arrangement exhibits translational symmetry if it looks the same after being moved in any direction through a specific distance. Similarly, rotational symmetry is when the arrangement looks the same after being rotated through some angle.)

In an article titled ‘Puzzling Crystals Plunge Scientists Into Uncertainty’ published in The New York Times on July 30, 1985, Pulitzer-prize winning science journalist Malcolm W Browne wrote that “the discovery of a new type of crystal that violates some of the accepted rules has touched off an explosion of conjecture and research…” referring to QCs.

Malcolm W. Browne

Paper a day on the subject

In the article, Browne writes that Shechtman’s finding (though not explicitly credited) has “galvanized microstructure analysts, mathematicians, metallurgists and physicists in at least eight countries.”

This observation points at the discovery’s anomalous nature since, from an empirical point of view, Browne suggests that such a large number of scientists from fields as diverse have not come together to understand anything in recent times. In fact, he goes on to remark that according to one estimate, a paper a day was being published on the subject.

Getting one’s paper published by an academic journal worldwide is important to any scientist because it formally establishes primacy. That is, once a paper has been published by a journal, then the contents of the paper are attributed to the paper’s authors and none else.

Since no two journals will accept the same paper for publication (a kind of double jeopardy), a paper a day implies that distinct solutions were presented each day. Therefore, Browne seems to claim in his article, in the framework of Kuhn’s positions, that scientists were quite excited about the discovery of a phenomenon that violated a longstanding paradigm.

Shechtman’s paper had been published in the prestigious Physical Review Letters, which is in turn published by the American Physical Society from Maryland, USA, in the 20th issue of its 53rd volume, 1984 – but not without its share of problems.

Istvan Hargittai, a reputed crystallographer with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, described a first-hand account of the years 1982 to 1984 in Shechtman’s life in the April 2011 issue of Structural Chemistry. In these accounts, he says that,

Once Shechtman had completed his experiment, he became very lonely as every scientific discoverer does: the discoverer knows something nobody else does.

In Shechtman’s case, however, this loneliness was compounded by two aspects of his discovery that made it difficult for him to communicate with his peers about it. First: To him, it was such an important discovery that he wanted desperately to inquire about its possibilities to those established in the field – and the latter dismissed his claims as specious.

Second: the fact that he couldn’t conclusively explain what he himself had found troubled him, kept him from publishing his results.

At the time, Hargittai was a friend of a British crystallographer named Alan Mackay, from the Birkbeck College in London. Mackay had, a few years earlier, noted the work of mathematician Roger Penrose, who had created a pattern in which pentagons of different sizes were used to tile a 2D space completely (Penrose had derived inspiration from the work of the 16th century astronomer Johannes Kepler).

In other words, Penrose had produced theoretically a planar version of what Shechtman was looking for, what would help him resolve his personal crisis. Mackay, in turn, had attempted to produce a diffraction pattern simulated on the Penrose tiles, assuming that what was true for 2D-space could be true for 3D-space as well.

An example of a Penrose tiling

By the time Mackay had communicated this development to Hargittai, Shechtman had – unaware of them – already discovered QCs.

There was another investigation ongoing at the University of Pennsylvania’s physics department: Dov Levine, pursuing his PhD under the guidance of Paul Steinhardt, had developed a 3D model of the Penrose tiles – again, unaware of Shechtman’s and Mackay’s works.

Thus, it is conspicuous how the anomalous nature of discoveries – which are unprecedented by definition because, otherwise, they would be expected – facilitates a communication-breakdown within the scientific community. In the case of Levine, who was eager to publish his findings, Steinhardt advised caution to avoid the ignominy that might arise out of publishing findings that are not fully explicable.

In the meantime, Shechtman had found an interested listener in Ilan Blech, another crystallographer at NBS. They prepared a paper together to send to the Journal of Applied Physics in 1984 after deciding that it was imperative to get across to as many scientists as possible in the search for an explanation for the structure of QCs.

However, since they had no explanation of their own, the paper had to be buried “under a mountain of information about alloys,” which prompted the Journal to write back saying the paper “would not interest physicists.”

Shechtman and Blech realized that, as a consequence of reporting such a result, they would have to spruce up its presentation. Shechtman invited veteran NBS crystallographer John Cahn, and Cahn in turn invited Denis Gratias, a French crystallographer, to join the team.

Even though Cahn had been sceptical of the possibility of QCs, he had since changed his mind in the last two years, and his presence awarded some credibility to the contents of the paper. After Gratias restructured the mathematics in the paper, it was finally accepted for publication in the Physical Review Letters on November 12, 1984.

(Clockwise from top-left corner) Danny Shechtman, Istvan Hargittai, Roger Penrose, Paul Steinhardt, and Dov Levine with Steinhardt

And by the time Browne’s article appeared a year later, it is safe to assume that at least 50-70 papers on the subject were published in the period. Whether this was a rush to accumulate anomalies or to discredit the finding is immaterial: the threat to the existing paradigm was perceptible and scientists felt the need to do something about it; and Browne’s noting of the same is proof that science journalists noted the need, too.

In fact, how much of an anomaly is a finding that has been accepted for publication? Because after it has been carefully vetted and published, it becomes as good as fact: other scientists can now found their work upon on it, and at the time of publication of their papers, cite the parent paper as authority.

However, it must be noted that there are important exceptions, such as the infamous Fleischmann-Pons experiment in cold fusion in 1989-1990. For these reasons, let it be that a paradigm is considered to have entered a crisis period only after it is established that it cannot be “tweaked” after each discovery and allowed to continue.

Three years of falsifications

Browne, too, seems to conclude that despite a definite discovery having been made three years earlier,

… only recently has experimental evidence overwhelmed the initial skepticism of the scientific community that such a form of matter could exist.

For three years, the community could not allow a discovery to pass, and subjected it repeatedly to tests of falsifications. A similar remark comes from science writer and crystallographer Paul Steinhardt, Levine’s PhD mentor, who, in a paper titled ‘New perspectives on forbidden symmetries, quasicrystals and Penrose tilings’, remarked upon the need for “a new appreciation for the subtleties of crystallographically forbidden symmetries.”

Shechtman’s QCs exhibited rotational symmetry but not a translational one. In other words, they demanded to be placed squarely between crystalline and amorphous substances, sending researchers scurrying for an explanation.

In a period of such turmoil, Browne’s article states that some researchers were willing to consider the arrangement as existing in six-dimensional (6D) hyperspace rather than in 3D space-time.

A hexeract (or, a geopeton)

Now, someone within the community had considered physical hyperspace to be an explanation way back in 1985. Even though mathematical hyperspace as a theory had been around since the days of Bernhard Riemann (Habilitationsschrift, 1854) and Ludwig Schläfli (Theorie der vielfachen Kontinuität, 1852), the notion of physical hyperspatial theory with a correspondence to physical chemistry is still nascent at best.

Therefore, Browne’s suggestion only seems to supplant his narrative of intellectual turbulence, that scientists had stumbled upon a phenomenon so anomalous that it alone was prompting crisis.

Conclusion

Did science journalists find QCs anomalous? Yes, they did. Browne, Hargittai and Steinhardt, amongst others, were quick to identify the anomalous nature of the newly discovered material and point it out through newspaper reports and articles published within the scientific community.

Thomas Kuhn’s position that scientists will attempt to denounce a paradigm-shift-inducing theory before they themselves are forced to shift is reflected in the writers’ accounts of Dan Shechtman in the days leading up to and just after his discovery.

Did they, the journalists, report the crisis period as it happened or as an isolated incident? That they could identify the onset of a crisis as it happened indicates that they did recognize it for what it was. However, it remains to be seen whether these confirmations validate Kuhn’s hypothesis in their entirety.

Categories
Culture Science

A case of Kuhn, quasicrystals & communication – Part I

Dan Shechtman’s discovery of quasi-crystals, henceforth abbreviated as QCs, in 1982 was a landmark achievement that invoked a paradigm-shift in the field of physical chemistry.

However, at the time, the discovery faced stiff resistance from the broader scientific community and an eminent chemist of the time. Such things made it harder for Shechtman to prove his findings as being credible, but he persisted and succeeded in doing so.

We know his story today because of its fairly limited coverage in the media, and especially from the comments of his peers, students and friends; its revolutionary characteristic was well reflected in many reports and essays.

Because such publications indicated the onset of a new kind of knowledge, what merits consideration is if the media internalized Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science in the way it approached the incident.

Broadly, the question is: Did the media reports reflect Kuhn’s paradigm-shifting hypothesis? Specifically, in the 1980s,

  1. Did science journalists find QCs anomalous?
  2. Did science journalists identify the crisis period when it happened or was it reported as an isolated incident?
  3. Does the media’s portrayal of the crisis period reflect any incommensurability (be it in terms of knowledge or communication)?

Finally: How did science journalism behave when reporting stories from the cutting edge?

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Thomas S. Kuhn’s (July 18, 1922 – June 17, 1996) book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, was significantly influential in academic circles as well as the scientific community. It introduced the notion of a paradigm-shift, which has since become a principal when describing the evolution of scientific knowledge.

Thomas Kuhn, Harvard University, 1949

Kuhn defined a paradigm based on two properties:

  1. The paradigm must be sufficiently unprecedented to attract researchers to study it, and
  2. It must be sufficiently open-ended to allow for growth and debate

By this definition, most of the seminal findings of the greatest thinkers and scientists of the past are paradigmatic. Nicholas Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543) and Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) are both prime examples that illustrate what paradigms can be and how they shift perceptions and interests in the subject.

Such paradigms, Kuhn said (p. 25), work with three attributes that are inherent to their conception. The first of the three attributes is the determination of significant fact, whereby facts accrued through observation and experimentation are measured and recorded more accurately.

Even though they are the “pegs” of any literature concerning the paradigm, activities such as their measurement and records are independent of the dictates of the paradigm. Instead, they are, in a colloquial sense, conducted anyway.

Why this is so becomes evident in the second of the three foci: matches of fact with theory. Kuhn claims (p. 26) that this class of activity is rarer in reality, where predictions of the reigning theory are compared to the (significant) facts measured in nature.

Consequently, good agreement between the two would establish the paradigm’s robustness, whereas disagreement would indicate the need for further refinement. In fact, on the same page, Kuhn illustrates the rarity of such agreement by stating

… no more than three such areas are even yet accessible to Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

The third and last focus is on the articulation of theory. In this section, Kuhn posits that the academician conducts experiments to

  1. Determine physical constants associated with the paradigm
  2. Determine quantitative laws (so as to provide a physical quantification of the paradigm)
  3. Determine the applications of the paradigm in various fields

In The Structure, one paradigm replaces another through a process of contention. At first, a reigning paradigm exists that, to an acceptable degree of reasonableness, explains empirical observations. However, in time, as technology improves and researchers find results that don’t quite agree with the reigning paradigm, the results are listed as anomalies.

This refusal to immediately induct the findings and modify the paradigm is illustrated by Kuhn as proof toward our expectations clouding our perception of the world.

Instead, researchers hold the position of the paradigm as fixed and immovable, and attempt to check for errors with the experimental/observed data. An example of this is the superluminal neutrinos that were “discovered”, rather stumbled upon, at the OPERA experiment in Italy that works with the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

When the experiment logs from that fateful day, September 23, 2011, were examined, nothing suspicious was found with the experimental setup. However, despite this assurance of the instruments’ stability, the theory (of relativity) that prohibits this result was held superior.

On October 18, then, experimental confirmation was received that the neutrinos could not have traveled faster than light because the theoretically predicted energy signature of a superluminal neutrino did not match with the observed signatures.

As Kuhn says (p. 77):

Though they [scientists] may begin to lose faith and then to consider alternatives, they do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis. They do not, that is, treat anomalies as counterinstances, though in the vocabulary of philosophy of science that is what they are.

However, this state of disagreement is not perpetual because, as Kuhn concedes above, an accumulation of anomalies forces a crisis in the scientific community. During a period of crisis, the paradigm reigns, yes, but is also now and then challenged by alternately conceived paradigms that

  1. Are sufficiently unprecedented
  2. Are open-ended to provide opportunities for growth
  3. Are able to explain those anomalies that threatens the reign of the extant paradigm

The new paradigm imposes a new framework of ideals to contain the same knowledge that dethroned the old paradigm, and because of a new framework, new relations between different bits of information become possible. Therefore, paradigm shifts are periods encompassing rejection and re-adoption as well as restructuring and discovery.

Kuhn ties together here three postulates: incommensurability, scientific communication, and knowledge being non-accumulative. When a new paradigm takes over, there is often a reshuffling of subjects – some are relegated to a different department, some departments are broadened to include more subjects than were there previously, while other subjects are confined to illogicality.

During this phase, some areas of knowledge may no longer be measured with the same standards that have gone before them.

Because of this incommensurability, scientific communication within their community breaks down, but only for the period of the crisis. For one, because of the new framework, some scientific terms change their meaning, and because multiple revolutions have happened in the past, Kuhn assumes the liberty here to conclude that scientific knowledge is non-accumulative. This facet of evolution was first considered by Herbert Butterfield in his The Origins of Modern Science, 1300-1800. Kuhn, in his work, then drew a comparison to visual gestalt (p. 85).

The Gestalt principles of visual perception seek to explain why the human mind sees two faces before it can identify the vase in the picture.

Just as in politics, when during a time of instability the people turn to conservative ideals to recreate a state of calm, scientists get back to a debate over the fundamentals of science to choose a successor paradigm. This is a gradual process, Kuhn says, that may or may not yield a new paradigm that is completely successful in explaining all the anomalies.

The discovery of QCs

On April 8, 1982, Dan Shechtman, a crystallographer working at the U. S. National Bureau of Standards (NBS), made a discovery that would nothing less than shatter the centuries-old assumptions of physical chemistry. Studying the molecular structure of an alloy of aluminium and manganese using electron diffraction, Shechtman noted an impossible arrangement of the molecules.

In electron diffraction, electrons are used to study extremely small objects, such as atoms and molecules, because the wavelength of electrons – which determines the resolution of the image produced – can be controlled by their electric charge. Photons lack this charge and are therefore unsuitable for high-precision observation at the atomic level.

When accelerated electrons strike the object under study, their wave nature takes over and they form an interference pattern on the observer lens when they are scattered. The device then works backward to reproduce the surface that may have generated the recorded pattern, in the process yielding an image of the surface. On that day in April, this is what Shechtman saw (note: the brightness of each node is only an indication of how far it is from the observer lens).

The electron-diffraction pattern exposing a quasicrystal’s lattice structure (Image from Ars Technica)

The diffraction pattern shows the molecules arranged in repeating pentagonal rings. That meant that the crystal exhibited 5-fold symmetry, i.e. an arrangement that was symmetrical about five axes. At the time, molecular arrangements were restricted by the then-36-year old crystallographic restriction theorem, which held that arrangements with only 2-, 3-, 4- and 6-fold symmetries were allowed. In fact, Shechtman had passed his university exams proving that 5-fold symmetries couldn’t exist!

At the time of discovery, Shechtman couldn’t believe his eyes because it was an anomaly. In keeping with tradition, in fact, he proceeded to look for experimental errors. Only after he could find none did he begin to consider reporting the discovery.

A photograph showing the pages from Shechtman’s logbook from the day he made the seemingly anomalous observation. Observe the words “10 Fold???”

In the second half of the 20th century, the field of crystallography was beginning to see some remarkable discoveries, but none of them as unprecedented as that of QCs would turn out to be. This was because of the development of spectroscopy, a subject that studied the interaction of matter and radiation.

Using devices such as X-ray spectrometers and tunneling electron microscopes (TEM), scientists could literally look at a molecule instead of having to determine its form via chemical reactions. In such a period, there was tremendous growth in physical chemistry because of the imaginative mind of one man who would later be called one of the greatest chemists of all time as well as make life difficult for Shechtman: Linus Carl Pauling.

Pauling epitomized the aspect of Kuhn’s philosophy that refused to let an old paradigm die, and therefore posed a significant hindrance to Shechtman’s radical new idea. While Shechtman attempted to present his discovery of QCs as an anomaly that he thought prompted crisis, Pauling infamously declared, “There is no such thing as quasi-crystals, only quasi-scientists.

Media reportage

The clash between Pauling and Shechtman, rather the “old school” and the “new kid”, created some attrition within universities in the United States and Israel, who with Shechtman was affiliated. While a select group of individuals who were convinced of the veracity of the radical claims set about studying it further, others – perhaps under the weight of Pauling’s credibility – dismissed the work as erroneous and desperate. The most important entity classifiable under the latter was the Journal of Applied Physics, which refused to publish Shechtman’s finding.

In this turmoil, there was a collapse of communication between scientists of the two factions. Unfortunately, the media’s coverage of this incident was limited: a few articles appeared in the mid-1980s in newspapers, magazines and journals; in 1988 when Pauling published his own paper on QCs; in 1999 when Shechtman won the prestigious Wolf Prize in mathematics; and in 2011, when he won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Despite the low coverage, the media managed to make known the existence of such things as QCs to a wider community as well as to a less-sophisticated one. The rift between Pauling and Shechtman was notable because, apart from reflecting Kuhn’s views, it also brought to light the mental block scientists professed when it came to falsification of their work, and how that prevented science as such from progressing rapidly. Anyway, such speculations are all based in the media’s representation of the events.

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A case of Kuhn, quasicrystals & communication – Part I

Dan Shechtman’s discovery of quasi-crystals, henceforth abbreviated as QCs, in 1982 was a landmark achievement that invoked a paradigm-shift in the field of physical chemistry.

However, at the time, the discovery faced stiff resistance from the broader scientific community and an eminent chemist of the time. Such things made it harder for Shechtman to prove his findings as being credible, but he persisted and succeeded in doing so.

We know his story today because of its fairly limited coverage in the media, and especially from the comments of his peers, students and friends; its revolutionary characteristic was well reflected in many reports and essays.

Because such publications indicated the onset of a new kind of knowledge, what merits consideration is if the media internalized Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science in the way it approached the incident.

Broadly, the question is: Did the media reports reflect Kuhn’s paradigm-shifting hypothesis? Specifically, in the 1980s,

  1. Did science journalists find QCs anomalous?
  2. Did science journalists identify the crisis period when it happened or was it reported as an isolated incident?
  3. Does the media’s portrayal of the crisis period reflect any incommensurability (be it in terms of knowledge or communication)?

Finally: How did science journalism behave when reporting stories from the cutting edge?

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Thomas S. Kuhn’s (July 18, 1922 – June 17, 1996) book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, was significantly influential in academic circles as well as the scientific community. It introduced the notion of a paradigm-shift, which has since become a principal when describing the evolution of scientific knowledge.

Thomas Kuhn, Harvard University, 1949

Kuhn defined a paradigm based on two properties:

  1. The paradigm must be sufficiently unprecedented to attract researchers to study it, and
  2. It must be sufficiently open-ended to allow for growth and debate

By this definition, most of the seminal findings of the greatest thinkers and scientists of the past are paradigmatic. Nicholas Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543) and Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) are both prime examples that illustrate what paradigms can be and how they shift perceptions and interests in the subject.

Such paradigms, Kuhn said (p. 25), work with three attributes that are inherent to their conception. The first of the three attributes is the determination of significant fact, whereby facts accrued through observation and experimentation are measured and recorded more accurately.

Even though they are the “pegs” of any literature concerning the paradigm, activities such as their measurement and records are independent of the dictates of the paradigm. Instead, they are, in a colloquial sense, conducted anyway.

Why this is so becomes evident in the second of the three foci: matches of fact with theory. Kuhn claims (p. 26) that this class of activity is rarer in reality, where predictions of the reigning theory are compared to the (significant) facts measured in nature.

Consequently, good agreement between the two would establish the paradigm’s robustness, whereas disagreement would indicate the need for further refinement. In fact, on the same page, Kuhn illustrates the rarity of such agreement by stating

… no more than three such areas are even yet accessible to Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

The third and last focus is on the articulation of theory. In this section, Kuhn posits that the academician conducts experiments to

  1. Determine physical constants associated with the paradigm
  2. Determine quantitative laws (so as to provide a physical quantification of the paradigm)
  3. Determine the applications of the paradigm in various fields

In The Structure, one paradigm replaces another through a process of contention. At first, a reigning paradigm exists that, to an acceptable degree of reasonableness, explains empirical observations. However, in time, as technology improves and researchers find results that don’t quite agree with the reigning paradigm, the results are listed as anomalies.

This refusal to immediately induct the findings and modify the paradigm is illustrated by Kuhn as proof toward our expectations clouding our perception of the world.

Instead, researchers hold the position of the paradigm as fixed and immovable, and attempt to check for errors with the experimental/observed data. An example of this is the superluminal neutrinos that were “discovered”, rather stumbled upon, at the OPERA experiment in Italy that works with the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

When the experiment logs from that fateful day, September 23, 2011, were examined, nothing suspicious was found with the experimental setup. However, despite this assurance of the instruments’ stability, the theory (of relativity) that prohibits this result was held superior.

On October 18, then, experimental confirmation was received that the neutrinos could not have traveled faster than light because the theoretically predicted energy signature of a superluminal neutrino did not match with the observed signatures.

As Kuhn says (p. 77):

Though they [scientists] may begin to lose faith and then to consider alternatives, they do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis. They do not, that is, treat anomalies as counterinstances, though in the vocabulary of philosophy of science that is what they are.

However, this state of disagreement is not perpetual because, as Kuhn concedes above, an accumulation of anomalies forces a crisis in the scientific community. During a period of crisis, the paradigm reigns, yes, but is also now and then challenged by alternately conceived paradigms that

  1. Are sufficiently unprecedented
  2. Are open-ended to provide opportunities for growth
  3. Are able to explain those anomalies that threatens the reign of the extant paradigm

The new paradigm imposes a new framework of ideals to contain the same knowledge that dethroned the old paradigm, and because of a new framework, new relations between different bits of information become possible. Therefore, paradigm shifts are periods encompassing rejection and re-adoption as well as restructuring and discovery.

Kuhn ties together here three postulates: incommensurability, scientific communication, and knowledge being non-accumulative. When a new paradigm takes over, there is often a reshuffling of subjects – some are relegated to a different department, some departments are broadened to include more subjects than were there previously, while other subjects are confined to illogicality.

During this phase, some areas of knowledge may no longer be measured with the same standards that have gone before them.

Because of this incommensurability, scientific communication within their community breaks down, but only for the period of the crisis. For one, because of the new framework, some scientific terms change their meaning, and because multiple revolutions have happened in the past, Kuhn assumes the liberty here to conclude that scientific knowledge is non-accumulative. This facet of evolution was first considered by Herbert Butterfield in his The Origins of Modern Science, 1300-1800. Kuhn, in his work, then drew a comparison to visual gestalt (p. 85).

The Gestalt principles of visual perception seek to explain why the human mind sees two faces before it can identify the vase in the picture.

Just as in politics, when during a time of instability the people turn to conservative ideals to recreate a state of calm, scientists get back to a debate over the fundamentals of science to choose a successor paradigm. This is a gradual process, Kuhn says, that may or may not yield a new paradigm that is completely successful in explaining all the anomalies.

The discovery of QCs

On April 8, 1982, Dan Shechtman, a crystallographer working at the U. S. National Bureau of Standards (NBS), made a discovery that would nothing less than shatter the centuries-old assumptions of physical chemistry. Studying the molecular structure of an alloy of aluminium and manganese using electron diffraction, Shechtman noted an impossible arrangement of the molecules.

In electron diffraction, electrons are used to study extremely small objects, such as atoms and molecules, because the wavelength of electrons – which determines the resolution of the image produced – can be controlled by their electric charge. Photons lack this charge and are therefore unsuitable for high-precision observation at the atomic level.

When accelerated electrons strike the object under study, their wave nature takes over and they form an interference pattern on the observer lens when they are scattered. The device then works backward to reproduce the surface that may have generated the recorded pattern, in the process yielding an image of the surface. On that day in April, this is what Shechtman saw (note: the brightness of each node is only an indication of how far it is from the observer lens).

The electron-diffraction pattern exposing a quasicrystal’s lattice structure (Image from Ars Technica)

The diffraction pattern shows the molecules arranged in repeating pentagonal rings. That meant that the crystal exhibited 5-fold symmetry, i.e. an arrangement that was symmetrical about five axes. At the time, molecular arrangements were restricted by the then-36-year old crystallographic restriction theorem, which held that arrangements with only 2-, 3-, 4- and 6-fold symmetries were allowed. In fact, Shechtman had passed his university exams proving that 5-fold symmetries couldn’t exist!

At the time of discovery, Shechtman couldn’t believe his eyes because it was an anomaly. In keeping with tradition, in fact, he proceeded to look for experimental errors. Only after he could find none did he begin to consider reporting the discovery.

A photograph showing the pages from Shechtman’s logbook from the day he made the seemingly anomalous observation. Observe the words “10 Fold???”

In the second half of the 20th century, the field of crystallography was beginning to see some remarkable discoveries, but none of them as unprecedented as that of QCs would turn out to be. This was because of the development of spectroscopy, a subject that studied the interaction of matter and radiation.

Using devices such as X-ray spectrometers and tunneling electron microscopes (TEM), scientists could literally look at a molecule instead of having to determine its form via chemical reactions. In such a period, there was tremendous growth in physical chemistry because of the imaginative mind of one man who would later be called one of the greatest chemists of all time as well as make life difficult for Shechtman: Linus Carl Pauling.

Pauling epitomized the aspect of Kuhn’s philosophy that refused to let an old paradigm die, and therefore posed a significant hindrance to Shechtman’s radical new idea. While Shechtman attempted to present his discovery of QCs as an anomaly that he thought prompted crisis, Pauling infamously declared, “There is no such thing as quasi-crystals, only quasi-scientists.

Media reportage

The clash between Pauling and Shechtman, rather the “old school” and the “new kid”, created some attrition within universities in the United States and Israel, who with Shechtman was affiliated. While a select group of individuals who were convinced of the veracity of the radical claims set about studying it further, others – perhaps under the weight of Pauling’s credibility – dismissed the work as erroneous and desperate. The most important entity classifiable under the latter was the Journal of Applied Physics, which refused to publish Shechtman’s finding.

In this turmoil, there was a collapse of communication between scientists of the two factions. Unfortunately, the media’s coverage of this incident was limited: a few articles appeared in the mid-1980s in newspapers, magazines and journals; in 1988 when Pauling published his own paper on QCs; in 1999 when Shechtman won the prestigious Wolf Prize in mathematics; and in 2011, when he won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Despite the low coverage, the media managed to make known the existence of such things as QCs to a wider community as well as to a less-sophisticated one. The rift between Pauling and Shechtman was notable because, apart from reflecting Kuhn’s views, it also brought to light the mental block scientists professed when it came to falsification of their work, and how that prevented science as such from progressing rapidly. Anyway, such speculations are all based in the media’s representation of the events.