Shechtman and Pauling

I heard the news that Dan Shechtman had won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on the radio as I was driving to work. Amanda Yarnell’s e-mail was waiting for me when I got to the office just before 7 a.m. In it she provided a link to Mitch Jacoby’s 1999 story in C&EN on quasicrystals, which leads with Shechtman’s discovery: “In 1982, Dan Shechtman peered through the window at the viewing stage of an electron microscope and saw something that broke the rules of crystallography.”

Mitch’s story also had a sidebar that noted just how radical Shechtman’s claim of a quasicrystal with 10-fold rotational symmetry was. “Shechtman says some colleagues handed him textbooks and told him that if studied he’d realize his claims were impossible. Others, most notably two-time Nobel-prize winner Linus Pauling, denounced the quasicrystal concept in scientific forums.”

Reading that brought back a flash of memory. I’d heard Pauling deride the idea of quasicrystals, almost surely in a talk at Caltech. I didn’t have time just then to follow up on my memory, but later in the day, I searched the C&EN Archives for “Pauling at Caltech” and, sure enough, the first hit was to a story I had written that had appeared in the March 17, 1986, issue of C&EN, “Caltech Celebrates Pauling’s 85th Birthday.” (We’ll get a link to that story shortly.)

The main focus of my story was that Caltech chemistry professor Ahmed Zewail had used the occasion of Pauling’s 85th birthday to engineer a rapprochement between the institute and very likely its most distinguished alumnus and faculty member. Pauling’s antiwar and anti-nuclear weapons activities in the 1950s and 1960s had not set well with Caltech’s then very conservative board and leadership. “After Pauling received the 1963 Nobel Peace Prize,” I wrote, “Caltech’s president publicly questioned the value of the activities that led to the award. Pauling resigned from Caltech the same day.”

I remember almost nothing about the talk Pauling gave at the conclusion of the day-long symposium. I think it focused mostly on his work throughout his lifetime, which began, after all, with pioneering work in crystallography. However, I distinctly remember him going on a five- or 10-minute tangent to denounce in fairly harsh terms the entire concept of quasicrystals and the possibility of five-fold rotational symmetry. I believe he compared it to polywater.

Pauling was a genius and he was right about many chemical concepts. But he didn’t get the structure of DNA right, and he definitely missed the boat on Dan Shechtman’s remarkable insight.

Author: Rudy Baum

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