Crystallographic Conundrums

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Today’s Extending Wednesdays topic comes from the Chemistry section of Ideas Roadshow’s Extended Essay Guide, where Paul Steinhardt, Professor of Physics at Princeton University, gives a detailed description of how a surprising result of his computer model of amorphous metals made him question the limits of the laws of crystallography for solids. 

Video excerpt from Quasi-Serendipity featuring Prof. Paul Steinhardt, Princeton University

Professor Steinhardt’s ruminations on whether or not the rules of cryptography could be extended to his computer simulations launched him on a remarkable voyage into the world of “quasicrystals”, a new state of matter which Dan Schechtman serendipitously simulated in a laboratory, a feat for which he was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. z

Paul Steinhardt’s path to quasicrystal discovery, meanwhile, went in a strikingly different direction, from the mathematics of symmetries, to theoretical predictions of a diffraction pattern that was unwittingly produced by Schechtman and his colleagues at almost exactly the same moment, to eventually stumbling upon a quasicrystal from a rock in Siberia that turned out to be, quite literally, out of this world.  

Possible areas of investigation for an extended essay include an analysis of the laws of crystallography for solids and the symmetries of materials, X-ray diffraction patterns and their use in material science, Penrose Tiles and their applications, and a history of quasicrystals.  This topic bridges chemistry, mathematics and physics. 

Related Ideas Roadshow content includes the clips Beyond The Textbooks, Natural Quasicrystals, Quasi-Serendipity, Scientific Stubbornness, Scouring Museums and the two hour-long videos Indiana Steinhardt & The Quest for Quasicrystals, along with the corresponding eBook with the same title. 


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