Stephen’s Science Syndicate: Chemistry Nobel

Alfred Nobel

The Nobel Prize is likely the most coveted award for those involved in scientific research, literature, economics, and peace studies. Considering the nature of the prize, I will be writing a brief series on the Nobel’s awarded in the fields of chemistry, physiology or medicine, and physics by highlighting the work of the individuals receiving the awards for 2011.

For a brief background on the Nobel Prize: Alfred Nobel originally established the Nobel Prizes in his will when he died in 1895. Mr. Nobel was actually the inventor of dynamite and due to his regret for “finding more ways to kill people faster than ever before,” he established in his will that individuals selected for exceptional work in each of the mentioned categories receive a financial award along with a medal and diploma. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences selects the physics and chemistry awards while the National Assembly in Stockholm selects the medicine or physiology award.

This year the Nobel Prize for the study of chemistry was awarded to Dr. Dan Shechtman for his discovery of what are known as “quasicrystals.” As many of the prizes have been awarded to discoveries that have revolutionized a scientific field, the year’s was no different.

Before Dr. Shechtman, it was established thought that crystals such as ice were composed of specific structures known as lattices. These lattices formed ordered, repeating arrangements of atoms that were thought to contain translational symmetry. However with the discovery of quasicrystals, it has now been accepted that in addition to lattices, crystals can be composed of lattices that lack translational symmetry. In other words, crystals are not all necessarily ordered but continuous and may not have repeating atom arrangements. The team behind this work, which primarily took place in the 1980’s, was led by the Israeli scientist who has studied crystals and materials engineering throughout his career. Dr. Shechtman has worked in the United States as well as Israel in both academic and public venues. Today, Dr. Shechtman can be found on the faculty at the University of Iowa State in addition to the Ames Institute, a major research facility for the U.S. Department of Energy.

For the liberal arts crossover, here is an interesting historical fact especially for those interested in World War II. When the Germans invaded Denmark at the outset of the war, a Hungarian chemist dissolved the Nobel medals belonging to two German physicists in a substance known as aqua regia. Aqua regia is one of the strongest acids known and is capable of dissolving gold. By hiding the Nobel medals in solution, the Germans did not find them when looting various laboratories. After the war, the Hungarian chemist returned to his lab and was able to precipitate out (make solid) the medals and returned them to the physicists after recasting them.

Look for a brief overview of the awards in physics and medicine or physiology coming soon.

Update: Corrected for grammatical inconsistencies 10/19/2011, 11:00 AM.


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