The 2011 Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman on Wednesday for his discovery of quasicrystals, a mosaic-like chemical structure that researchers previously thought was impossible.
According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Shechtman's discovery in 1982 fundamentally changed the way chemists look at solid matter. The findings initially faced strong objections from the scientific community, and even got him removed of his research group.
"His battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter," the academy said.
Following Shechtman's discovery, scientists have produced other kinds of quasicrystals in the lab and discovered naturally occurring quasicrystals in mineral samples from a Russian river.
In all solid matter, atoms were believed to be packed inside crystals in symmetrical patterns that were repeated periodically over and over again. For scientists, this repetition was required in order to obtain a crystal.
Shechtman's image, however, showed that the atoms in his crystal were packed in a pattern that could not be repeated. Such a pattern was considered just as impossible as creating a football using only six-cornered polygons, when a sphere needs both five- and six-cornered polygons.
His discovery was extremely controversial. In the course of defending his findings, he was asked to leave his research group. However, his battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter.
Aperiodic mosaics, such as those found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain and the Darb-i Imam Shrine in Iran, have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level. In those mosaics, as in quasicrystals, the patterns are regular - they follow mathematical rules - but they never repeat themselves.