Sunday, October 9, 2011

Nobel Prize winner beat scientific consensus

When the 2011 Nobel Prize winners were announced this week, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to Israeli scientist, Dan Shechtman. Shechtman’s prize was the culmination of thirty years of struggle against conventional scientific wisdom.

According to a profile of Shechtman’s discovery in Business Week, Shechtman’s discovery was originally made on April 8, 1982 at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology. After Sheckman rapidly chilled a molten mixture of manganese and aluminum, he noticed, while looking through an electron microscope, that concentric circles of ten dots each had formed. The formations violated the laws of nature.

When he reported his findings to his fellow scientists, most did not believe him. Shechtman was ridiculed. The head of his laboratory suggested that he read a textbook on crystallography to understand why what he saw could not be. A two-time Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling said at a conference, “Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists,” according to Shechtman’s recollection in Haaretz.

Shechtman said in an interview reported in the Atlanta Journal, "I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying. I never took it personally. I knew I was right and they were wrong."

Shechtman persisted and published his findings in 1984. Soon, other crystallographers were discovering previously unheard of crystal patterns. In 1992, ten years after Shechtman’s discovery of quasicrystals, the International Union of Crystallography changed its definition of crystals. In 2009, naturally occurring quasicrystals were discovered in Russia.

In Shechtman’s case, there was a scientific consensus that quasicrystals could not exist. This is not the first time that a scientific consensus has been wrong, nor will it be the last. Men of reason and logic once believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. The science of medicine once involved bloodletting to heal the sick. Astronomers mapped Martian canals that were not really there. The theory of eugenics, which was once widely accepted, held that some races were naturally inferior to others.

As Shechtman said in an MSNBC article, “A good scientist is a humble and listening scientist and not one that is sure 100 percent in what he read in the textbooks."

Being wrong occasionally doesn’t mean that scientists are bad or that science is not valuable. It does mean that scientific claims should be questioned and verified. In two of today’s most controversial scientific topics, evolution and global warming, one side tries to shut down debate by arguing that there is a scientific consensus. Those who are skeptical of this so-called consensus are ridiculed. Scientific journals blacklist scientists who question the consensus and refuse to publish their papers.

As Shechtman said in Haaretz, “In the forefront of science there is not much difference between religion and science. People harbor beliefs.”

Science is based on seeking the answers to questions about our world. To shut out skeptics of the consensus is contrary to the whole purpose of science. Many of the greatest discoveries in human history would remain unknown if independent thinkers had not questioned the consensus of their day. As in the case of Shechtman’s crystallography text, science books often have to be rewritten when the consensus changes. Not all skeptics are destined to win a Nobel Prize as Shechtman did, but those who would close off scientific debates are decidedly ignoble.

Thanks to Don Thornton for providing the idea for this article.

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