Drive and curiosity

by Eszter Hargittai on October 5, 2011

In light of today’s announcement of the Chemistry Nobel Prize winner, Dan Shechtman, I thought I’d make a shameless plug for my father’s latest book: Drive and Curiosity (AMZ, BN). Chapter 8 is all about Dan Shachtman. He is singled out for his “stubbornness” given that he did not let himself be talked out of his observation of a structure that all chemists and physicists believed impossible. Funny thing is, even Shechtman proved at one point in one of his college exams that it was impossible. Despite the journal rejections and other pushback that followed, he persevered and voila. By the way, it’s not a stretch for me to be making this connection to my father’s writing. The book source on the Nobel Prize page about Shechtman for further reading is a book co-authored by my father and my brother: Candid Science V. Conversations with Famous Scientists.

This photo (from the book) is of Dan Shechtman and Alan Mackay in my parents’ living room in 1995.



tomslee 10.05.11 at 11:14 pm

Well the book has a hell of a list of blurbers: Richard Zare, Paul Berg, Roald Hoffmann, plus a preface by Harry Kroto (who taught me when he was nobbut a mere lecturer at Sussex). I see Watson, Pauling, Teller and Gamow listed, and you say Schechtman too – can you list the other 10?


Gene O'Grady 10.05.11 at 11:16 pm

I admire your parents’ taste.


ezra abrams 10.05.11 at 11:37 pm

the well know issue of pos result bias rears its head again
what we don’t know is how many scientists pursued ideas taht everyone told them to drop, and the idea turned out to be wrong, and the scientist’s career was ruined.

Or, you could say those are the 3rd rate scientists, and we are better off without em

Howard whats his name at UC berkely, of ultracentrifuge fame, had a graph of originality on the x axis and funding probablty on the Y, and it was a U shaped curve

A nobelist from a few years ago, the guy in Wisconsin who figured out transfection of cells, explained on getting the nobel, that his grant for that idea was shot down, so he and a postdoc took another grant and used it for transfection…lucky for him, it worked

and, by the time Pauling was agin it, he was kinda loopy, touting Vitamin C for cancer


tomslee 10.06.11 at 2:11 am

I believe the guy in Wisconsin is Mario Capecchi.

And Linus Pauling – well Isaac Newton had loopy ideas too (as do I); they do not diminish his good ideas, which were many.


F 10.06.11 at 4:42 am

Truly game-changing discoveries in science are problematic. It requires an element of insanity because you must believe that what everyone else believes is wrong, and, simultaneously, you must be right. It’s the latter part that is a combination of luck and insight. This means, as pointed out in comment 3, that it is significantly subject to positive selection bias. It also means that you must be both iconoclastic and creative, a combination that often leads to being horribly wrong. Linus Pauling’s beliefs about Vitamin C are a great example.


kent 10.06.11 at 4:54 am

I know I should be reading the book to learn this, but can you humor me with at least a brief explanation of why quasicrystals were supposed to be impossible?

Thanks muchly.


bad Jim 10.06.11 at 8:24 am

Kent, here’s Wikipedia on quasicrystals and a nice article in the Guardian. Briefly, until Schechtman’s observation, crystals were only known to exhibit fairly simple symmetries, and it was thought there were good reasons why that should be so.

On Vitamin C: I learned only last Sunday that guinea pigs (and capybaras) also need supplemental ascorbic acid. For tropical herbivores or omnivores it’s evidently not terribly disadvantageous not to make their own, since it’s always present in their diet. It turns out that animals don’t need nearly as much as they manufacture, but it wasn’t completely unreasonable for Pauling to suppose otherwise.


ajay 10.06.11 at 8:53 am

7: indeed; IIRC it was a real stroke of luck that the early experimenters on scurvy decided to use guinea pigs as, well, their guinea pigs. If you deprive a rat or a mouse of vitamin C-containing foods, it doesn’t get scurvy; if they’d used rats, they would have gone off on completely the wrong track.
I should think vitamin C is present in most animals’ diets, though; there’s lots of it in fresh meat as well as green veg, and you don’t actually need very much to keep healthy.


MattF 10.06.11 at 3:43 pm

I didn’t follow the quasicrystal business when it happened, but… isn’t it somewhat surprising, in retrospect, that Shechtman faced so much skepticism given that Penrose tilings had been known for more than a decade? I remember playing around with non-periodic tilings in the mid-seventies, and my boss at the time suggested computing the conduction states of a metallic film with ion cores at the vertices of a Penrose tiling– which would have revealed a mighty peculiar diffraction pattern.


kent 10.06.11 at 10:41 pm

What Matt F said. I had checked out the Wikipedia and it really doesn’t explain what’s so surprising about finding patterns in nature that mathematicians knew about in the mathematical realm.

From the Guardian article bad Jim linked (thanks, btw): “his battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter” … this is what I’m not getting. “the very nature of matter”? really? why??


tomslee 10.07.11 at 12:19 am

kent – I can offer some speculation, but nothing first hand. If we had the book by Ingrid’s father maybe we could say more..

Penrose tilings were well known of course, but they had never been seen in real solids – and people had looked at a lot of solids. I do know (from graduate courses) that solid state physics and chemistry theory dealt entirely in periodic crystals, with theory of glasses being a niche side-topic, and that was it. The whole apparatus of solid state chemistry and physics, from the experimental techniques to mathematical group theoretical work, was based on periodic symmetry. So you can imagine that when someone says – “here, I’ve found a Penrose tiling kind of crystal” the first reaction would be to do the experiment again more closely.

The bit I know about electron diffraction or X-ray diffraction is that the experiments are difficult and the results often ambiguous (I can think of at least one case where a new phenomenon was proposed — called “bond length isomerism” — on the basis of crystallographic data, and a theory developed to explain it, only to have the experiments turn out to be wrong). I imagine the level of technique needed to establish these results was very demanding.

And once someone has proved there is one such structure, the knock on experiments (what other materials may generate these structures, what properties do they have) and theories (how do we do calculations on non-periodic structures; how do we interpret crystallographic data and more) would be numerous. Which is, of course, what gets scientists excited and what leads to prizes.

There may be a parallel with an earlier prize, for the discovery of fullerenes — a form of carbon with molecules like soccer balls. It’s not that no one had seen a soccer ball, or that no one had speculated about making carbon in that form, but seeing it in nature and finding ways to make it was a whole different ball game, pardon the pun, and was incredibly fruitful in terms of prompting further work.

So “the very nature of matter” does seem a bit of an overstatement, but I can see why it was a shocker.


ezra abrams 10.07.11 at 2:26 am

no not capecchi, oliver smithies


tomslee 10.07.11 at 12:54 pm

ezra: thanks.

In #11: s/Ingrid/Eszter/. Sorry.


ezra abrams 10.07.11 at 11:44 pm

I was in grad school at the time, and have a vague recollection of reading articles that were, in the main, approving.
Thes articles were in the top journals, like science and nature.
I also have a vague memory of Linus’ article in PNAS arguing agin it.
The point is, if there were favorable reviews in the two top science journals in the world (roughly) Science, from the Amer Ass Advancement of Science, and Nature, for profit from the UK, then Shectman from teh get go was getting serious, favorable attention.

But it isn’t really my field

I should also say that as a grad student, I heard senior faculty make the most snide and derogatory comments about Prof S Prusiner, and his work; a few years later, the Nobel committee decided that the work was good enough for them….scientists are people; they have this PR campaign for the funding agencys about how nobel and data driven the whole thing is, but underneath are people, with all their warts.

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