Two Paul Steinhardt Projects: “Cyclic Universe” and “Quasicrystals”
Quasi-elegance….As a young student first reading Weyl’s book, crystallography seemed like the “ideal” of what one should be aiming for in science: elegant mathematics that provides a complete understanding of all physical possibilities. Ironically, many years later, I played a role in showing that my “ideal” was seriously flawed. In 1984, Dan Shechtman, Ilan Blech, Denis Gratias and John Cahn reported the discovery of a puzzling manmade alloy of aluminumand manganese with icosahedral symmetry. Icosahedral symmetry, with its six five-fold symmetry axes, is the most famous forbidden crystal symmetry. As luck would have it, Dov Levine (Technion) and I had been developing a hypothetical idea of a new form of solid that we dubbed quasicrystals, short for quasiperiodic crystals. (A quasiperiodic atomic arrangement means the atomic positions can be described by a sum of oscillatory functions whose frequencies have an irrational ratio.) We were inspired by a two-dimensional tiling invented by Sir Roger Penrose known as the Penrose tiling, comprised of two tiles arranged in a five-fold symmetric pattern. We showed that quasicrystals could exist in three dimensions and were not subject to the rules of crystallography. In fact, they could have any of the symmetries forbidden to crystals. Furthermore, we showed that the diffraction patterns predicted for icosahedral quasicrystals matched the Shechtman et al. observations. Since 1984, quasicrystals with other forbidden symmetries have been synthesized in the laboratory. The 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Dan Shechtman for his experimental breakthrough that changed our thinking about possible forms of matter. More recently, colleagues and I have found evidence that quasicrystals may have been among the first minerals to have formed in the solar system.
The crystallography I first encountered in Weyl’s book, thought to be complete and immutable, turned out to be woefully incomplete, missing literally an uncountable number of possible symmetries for matter. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned: While elegance and simplicity are often useful criteria for judging theories, they can sometimes mislead us into thinking we are right, when we are actually infinitely wrong. See:
2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?