“And fight I did…” (Shechtman wins Nobel Prize in chemistry)

Shechtman (the inventor of ultra-strong macro-materials grown from quasi-periodic nanocrystals) tells the story of his discovery and the strong resistance from his crystallography peers against this new knowledge. This is a tragedy of the commons that ended good due to that (1) two strong individuals met and collaborated to understand and explain unconventional results to a broader community and (2) the new knowledge got a new and less biased name – “quasi-crystals”.

Good lessons learned on how to overcome old paradigms:

  1. Listen extremely carefully to other interpretations.
  2. Never give up the fight for the facts.
  3. Invent more appropriate explanations.
  4. Name the new knowledge in a manner that allows the old thinking to adopt it slowly.

Knowledge is a growing process, and it saves both time, energy and effort if thoughts are allowed to stay imperfect in those areas where it does not matter. The new knowledge is often more about becoming aware of the valid ranges for assumptions that are still useful (compromises) than about findings that prove assumptions wrong (conflicts).

We must therefore allow the understanding of our world to remain flat only on the scales where it is truth, consider calling it quasi-flat on scales where its roundness does start to matter, carefully use the world round only where its roundness is all that matters, and do call it ellipsoidic when the detailed shape does start to matter. It is all about scales of thinking.

This year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry as well as that in physics has recognized two unique and very controversial discoveries that are both on the border of changing scales – the former in the nano-to-micro scale and the latter in the astronomical-to-relativistic scale. 2011 does indeed mark a good era for new discoveries outside the boundaries of established thinking!

Interestingly enough, on the elementary-particle scale, the energy densities and speeds of particles and fields are comparable in magnitude to those of black holes and photons, respectively. Maybe matter is just that – different twists on the densest photon theoretically possible. No small matter, it is.

There is actually a growing community of material scientists that has together built a model of matter that has no free parameters – just a crisp and effective 4D relativistic algebra without any correction factors. It is completely scalable, i.e. the same for all scales, and equal for fields like for particles. As prof John Williamson explains: “If it’s right it’s therefore only just right. Very vulnerable to experimental disproof. Unless of course…”

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