Quasicrystals — atoms "packed in a pattern that could not be repeated" — were thought to be impossible, the academy says. And Shechtman "had to fight a fierce battle against established science" to get his discovery taken seriously. He was even asked to leave his research group at one point.
But, says the academy, "his battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter."
On Morning Edition, NPR's Joe Palca said Shechtman's discovery was a rare "eureka moment" when something totally unexpected was discovered. And quasicrystals have proved to have practical uses, Joe said. Because they're very hard, they've been used in surgical instruments and other sharp blades. And because they're poor conductors of heat, they've been used in insulators.