Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Science News Under the Microscope: Quasicrystals

My browser's home page is the website for BBC News.  I don't often linger on it--usually I move on to Reddit and then my blog roll or cat videos or whatever--but I do like to take a quick glance and make sure that I'm aware of the top few stories of the day.  If it's something really important, it's going to be there.

As I type this, the top stories are:

1) "Greece hit by new general strike"
2) "Afghans 'foil Karzai death plot'"
3) "Nobel win for crystal discovery"

Now as a human, I have sympathy for what Greece is going through, and I'm glad that a life was saved and a murderous plot foiled, but as a fan of science, it's the third story that really gets my attention.  But there's a problem here:  I don't really know what this story is talking about.
But I want to know, and I'm going to try to find out.  And I want to do that here, "live."  This should be fun, right?

11:29 AM - Nobel win for crystal discovery I've already read the headline and the opening few sentences.  The nobel prize in chemistry this year went to Daniel Schectman, a researcher working in Israel.  It seems unusual that the prize is being awarded to one person, I'm guessing teams of researchers are usually required to accomplish Nobel-level work.  What he's done is a little less clear to me.  He has discovered the "structure of quasicrystals," which was thought to be impossible.  I don't know what a quasicrystal is or why it should be impossible.

11:37 AM - I've read the article, and it covers the basics:  how quasicrystals are made, what they're made from, what makes them special, and how they can be used.  There's also a lesson here about imagination and doing work you believe in, even if others think you're wrong and crazy for trying it.  So now I know that quasicrystals are formed from rapidly cooled metals--molten metals "squirted" onto a cool surface.

The resulting structure is "perfectly ordered," like a crystal, but "never repeating," which is very noncrystalline.  Hence:  quasicrystal.  (Additional note:  all crystals are ordered on the atomic level; it is the atoms themselves, and the number of bonds they can make, that determine the shape of the structure of a group of them.  Quasicrystals are similarly arranged on the atomic level.)
I've also learned they tend to be hard, not to stick to other materials, and do not pass heat or electric charge well.  Therefore, they may find use in non-stick coating on frying pans, durable razor blades and fine surgical needles, and even light emitting diodes (LEDs) and diesel engines.

The "tapestry" picture accompanying the article is actually a picture or representation of one of these quasicrystals, and the caption reveals that a quasicrystal was first observed in 1982!  Since then, quasicrystals have been found naturally and researchers are now involved in an "entirely new branch of structural science" devoted to creating, discovering, and testing new types of quasicrystal.

11:52 AM - I still have a few questions.  How long has this research been going on?  Are quasicrystals already found in products on the market?  Is there anything else cool about these things I should know?  I'm going to check Wikipedia.

11:58 AM - Oh gosh.  I almost fell into the rabbit hole.  There's a lot of cool stuff here.  Skip to the History section.  If you don't, and you're like me, you'll get bogged down by the third paragraph at the top.  This field appears to cross over heavily into mathematics, specifically geometry and patterning.  Sorry, I'm kind of just getting lost in the pretty pictures here...

12:05 PM - Okay, let's wrap up.  BBC actually did a very good job of explaining this, so this post might have been a waste of time.  I'll post it anyway, but I'll probably throw up a bug picture or video or something a little later on today as a bonus.  But I'm glad I looked a little more into it, because the mathematics of it is really quite beautiful (or should I say handsome?) and worth checking out.

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