Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Establishment rejected research which later got the Nobel Prize

Greg Laden has reported on 
"There can be no such creature" - Chemistry Nobel: Daniel Shechtman

At first Shechtman's results were interpreted by other experts in the field as a simple mistake that only an idiot would make. They told Shechtman that he was observing a "double crystal" and mixing up his observations. One snarky colleague gave him a school textbook on crystals implying that he should brush up on his basics. A manuscript Shechtman sent to the Journal of Applied Physics was sent back unopened.
Over time, using his personal connections to a grad school colleague and, in turn, his colleague's connections, Shechtman got his work looked at more closely by other crystal experts, who concurred that the results were both a) real and b) impossible. Finally, in 1984, a paper coauthored by Shechtman and those experts (John Cahn, Denis Gratias and his schoolmate Ilan Blech) was published in Physical Review Letters. The world of crystallography was stunned, and the single most important pillar of dogma of the science of crystals ... all crystals consist of repeating periodic patterns ... was under serious question.
There are several interesting lessons in that Odyssey of Shechtman. One, don't discount your personal and professional relationship, or the cultural aspects of scientific networks. A pure, scientific, or even "skeptical" view of Shechtman's work failed. Shechtman needed to get someone to look at his results on blind trust that there could be something there, rather than approaching it from what was known to be very well established fact. On the other hand, it must be remembered that 99.99% of the time that a scientist gets an email from someone telling them that the basic tenets of their science are wrong, it is some crazy guy who sees things in rocks. But not this time. Ultimately, this is a case of science being conservative, which is usually appropriate, but learning something new. The turnaround time between nobody knowing this thing and key scientists getting it in print was only a couple of years.
Mu comments:
This story makes you wonder how many discoveries were suppressed as "defies science" before the age of arxiv and instant distribution. Nice to see he didn't get scooped and got credit in the end.
When I hesitatingly proposed in 1967 that it should be possible to build a human-friendly "white box" information processing system (as a opposed to an inherently unfriendly "black box" conventional computer system) the idea would never have even started to get off the ground if it had not been a very supportive boss, George Stern, and his boss, John Aris (see How ICL came to axe the CODIL project). However when ICL closed and I was declared redundant for wanting to follow up the idea I got the same kind of hostility as Shechtman - and as someone who is not good at exploiting contacts (due to vicious childhood bullying)I struggled with the research, getting many rejections because "I was an idiot" until I finally had a breakdown and abandoned the idea.

It is only recently that I have dusted down the old files and it looks as if the idea could be a partial model of a symbolic language that could bridge the gap between the brain's neural net and natural language. Whether this is true a study of how my research was "suppressed" could well give clues as to how other very interesting ideas have been consigned to the garbage heap.

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