Nobel Prizes and Consensus – Updated


So much for the idea that science operates by consensus.  If it did, Dan Schechtman would still be working in obscurity, rather than having just been named the 2011 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry.

Schechtman won for discovering something called quasicrystals (the article is a little technical).  We all think we know what crystals look like: solid forms that are not only symmetrical, but that also repeat endlessly.  Schechtman discovered crystal structures that are symmetrical, but have patterns that don’t repeat – ever – when they’re put next to each other.  It’s a three-dimensional analogue to Penrose Tiling, where the pattern is symmetrical about the center (in this case, it repeats 5 times), but never repeats as you move outward.

The world of crystallography didn’t receive Schechtman’s discovery with open arms:

“People didn’t think that this kind of crystal existed,” she said. “They thought it was against the rules of nature.”

“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.

For months he tried to persuade his colleagues of his find, but they refused to accept it. Finally he was asked to leave his research group, and moved to another one within the institute.

Shechtman returned to Israel, where he found one colleague prepared to work with him on an article describing the phenomenon. The article was at first rejected, but finally published in November 1984 — to uproar in the scientific world. Double Nobel winner Linus Pauling was among those who never accepted the findings.

“He would stand on those platforms and declare, ‘Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists,”’ Shechtman said.

Schechtman encountered fierce resistance to a laboratory discovery, and was rightly forced to go through the scientific process of debate, discussion, and reproducible experiment.  Computer models showing that such shapes were possible wouldn’t have been enough.  Making the lab measurements wouldn’t have been enough.  Making the crystals in once wouldn’t have been enough.  Explaining other scientists’ data wouldn’t have been enough.  Only when he was able to use his discovery to make useful predictions was it enough for us.  (The article says that the discovery took place on April 8, 1982, which corresponds to the first day of Passover that year.  Insiders will understand the structure of this paragraph.)

Climate orthodoxy considers itself bound by almost none of these constraints, and seeks to operate by consensus.  Science can be as susceptible to groupthink as any other pursuit.  It’s only the rigor of repeatable, predictive, real-world experimentation that keeps it grounded and validates its conclusions.

UPDATE: The official Nobel Prize press release recognizes Schechtman’s, “fierce battle against established science.”  Imagine that.

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