Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman won the 2011 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for his discovery of quasicrystals.
The 1982 breakthrough fundamentally changed the way chemists look at solid matter, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
Scientists used to believe that atoms were arranged inside crystals only in ordered, repeating patterns. Shechtman's work showed that the atoms could be packed in a pattern that did not repeat — a new chemical structure known as a quasicrystal.
NPR's Joe Palca said Shechtman was in the U.S. studying a mixture of aluminum and manganese through an electron microscope when he made the discovery. The microscope allowed him to see how the atoms in the compound were packed together — but the pattern didn't make sense because it seemed to violate the rules of nature by not repeating.
"This was such a fundamental change in what people understood about crystals that it just seemed impossible," Palca said. "So he sent in a paper to a scientific journal, and they basically sent it right back without even ... looking at it at all. But he knew he had something very weird."
All crystals were thought to have rotational symmetry, so that when they are rotated, they look the same. On April 8, 1982, Shechtman first observed crystals with 10 points — pentagonal symmetry, which most scientists said was impossible.
"I told everyone who was ready to listen that I had material with pentagonal symmetry. People just laughed at me," Shechtman said in a description of his work released by his university.
It took years for Shechtman and other researchers to prove that he was right, and he was asked to leave his research group in the course of defending his findings.
Even double Nobel winner Linus Pauling was among those who never accepted the research.
"He would stand on those platforms and declare, 'Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists,' " said Shechtman, a professor of materials science at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
The type of nonrepeating patterns that follow mathematical rules seen in quasicrystals are also seen in tile mosaics across the Arabic world, most notably in buildings such as the Alhambra Palace in Spain and the Darb-i Imam Shrine in Iran. Mosaics like these from as early the 13th century, made of just five unique tiles, "have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level," the academy said.
Quasicrystals have been synthesized in laboratories around the world since their discovery in 1982, but it wasn't until 2009 that the first naturally occurring quasicrystals were found.
They have also been found in some of the most durable kinds of steel in the world, and they are used in products such as razor blades and thin needles used in eye surgery. Scientists are also experimenting with using quasicrystals in surface coatings for frying pans, heat insulation in engines, and energy-saving LED lights.
Shechtman will receive the 10 million kroner ($1.5 million) prize in December.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.