Overcoming Impossible

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For most people, objectivity is the hallmark of science.  Indeed, the whole point of scientific inquiry is to discover some new, independent truth about the world that has nothing to do with our subjective emotional states: when we turn on our TV, we have the full expectation that it will work just fine, regardless of whether we’ve just been fired from our jobs or won the lottery.

Sociologists and philosophers of science will likely raise a few sceptical eyebrows at this point.  After all, they will say, different scientists will often have very different explanations for the same phenomenon, while a revolutionary insight for one person might be interpreted as a natural consequence for another, with a third viewing it as not even worth mentioning (“trivial” being one of the most overused words in the scientific lexicon).

Some will go much further still, pointing out that, since science is a human activity practiced by humans, “objective truth” is an inherently unattainable and laughingly naive notion: the best we can hope for is the achievement of widespread levels of social consensus throughout specific various human communities.

Which only goes to show that, for any reasonable idea, one can always find a few people willing to push it to patently absurd extremes for the sake of publishing a few academic papers (do these people, I wonder, believe themselves to be engaging in a “community belief system” every time they send someone a text message?).

But let’s return to planet earth, and simply recognize the obvious fact that, in our quest to penetrate objective reality, subjective issues invariably play a pivotal role.  

In particular, one of the key factors involved in any scientific advance concerns the personal attributes of the scientist making the discovery in the first place.   

That is, of course, hardly a shocking notion.   What comes to mind when you think of a renowned scientist?  Intelligence, insight, creativity?  All highly useful attributes to be sure, and often strongly associated with pioneering scientific achievement.  But for my money, by far the most significant character trait associated with scientific breakthroughs is determination.

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A good example of what I’m talking about is the story of Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt’s revolutionary discovery of a natural quasicrystal, a new state of matter.

PAUL'S BOOK COVERThe full details of this wonderfully rollicking scientific adventure, from a chance encounter in an Italian mineralogical museum to a geological expedition to the Siberian wilderness, can be found in Paul’s recently released book, The Second Kind of Impossible, as well as the Ideas Roadshow’s videos and eBook, Indiana Steinhardt and the Quest for Quasicrystals.  It is, I can assure you, one of the most fascinating tales you are ever likely to experience.

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But what I’d like to emphasize right now is the role of subjective desire that kept propelling the story forwards.  For while quasicrystals most definitely exist in the world for all to see, without Paul’s particularly tenacious temperament, we likely wouldn’t know about them.

Perhaps the best example of this is the anecdote that gives Paul’s memoir its name.  After years of constant searching, he and his colleagues finally came across some natural material whose experimental tests corresponded perfectly with those of quasicrystals that until then had only been produced in specifically-designed laboratory conditions.   

That, in itself, was a momentous discovery.  But it only whetted his appetite for more.

“How in the world,” I wondered, “did nature figure this out when we have to work really hard to make it? What is this telling us about quasicrystals?  Is it something about their stability? What is it telling us about some geophysical process?”

So off he went to visit Lincoln Hollister, an expert geologist in rock formation, in search of some answers.  He got a response. But it was hardly what he had in mind.

“‘Well, what you have there, Paul, is impossible.’  

“And I replied, ‘No, I don’t think it’s impossible, because we know that we can synthesize this in the laboratory, and we know quasicrystals are possible.’

“I started to tell him all about what we knew about quasicrystals, but he interrupted me and said, ‘No, no.  I don’t know about the quasicrystal part. That’s new to me. But what you’ve told me is that the material you have there is a mixture of metallic aluminum, metallic copper, and metallic iron.  Metallic aluminum is known to have a voracious affinity for oxygen. There’s lots of aluminum in the earth, but it’s all attached to oxygen, and we actually go to some effort to separate the two – that’s what aluminum foundries are for – and it takes a special process to do that – a lot of energy.  But in nature, we don’t find aluminum metal. It’s impossible.’

“Well, when that word impossible comes my way, there’s a question I always ask, which is, ‘When you say it’s impossible, do you mean it’s probably impossible, like 1+1=3?  Is it that kind of impossible?  Or do you just mean that it’s very, very unlikely?’

“He thought for a few moments, and then said, ‘Well, if I were forced to come up with an idea for such a material that was natural, I’d need to get conditions which are highly reducing, to strip the oxygen from aluminum.  And the only place you’re going to find that is some place deep under the earth, near the boundary between the core and the mantle. And then, you have to figure out, if you manage to do that, how you are going to get it to the surface of the earth.’

‘“Oh, I thought to myself, he meant the second kind of impossible: it’s a very unlikely story, but if it’s true, it’s really interesting.

As it happens, the final explanation for Paul’s quasicrystal sample turns out to be even more surprising and interesting than either of them could have guessed.  But a less persistent person never would have discovered it.

Howard Burton, howard@ideasroadshow.com

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STARIB teachers and students please visit our new website, here, for information about Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal which also includes a range of video and print resources featuring Paul Steinhardt.

Later this spring we will be launching new websites with information about Ideas Roadshow’s award-winning Academic Portal, Public Library Portal and School Portal. Please use the contact form or contact Howard directly if you’d like to know more.

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