The quest for a radically new form of matter

01 November 2013

Paul Steinhardt sat riveted to his seat as the driver, Victor, steered the double-track vehicle from side to side, dodging hazards every few feet. It was July 2011, and the 58-year-old physicist found himself in Chukotka, a region in Far Eastern Russia where the moon rises to white midnights framed against the smoky Koryak Mountains. He had never been camping, but was now leading a geological expedition deep into the Russian tundra, a land fractured from the Alaskan mass and inhabited by bears, against which the expedition team carried modified Kalashnikovs to defend themselves. There were no roads, and on occasion the vehicles, called snow-cats—rectangular boxes painted bright orange and blue-grey that trundled along at a top speed of 15 km per hour—would have to cross entire water bodies on a hope and a prayer.

Steinhardt was headed to a stream 230 km to the south-west of Anadyr, the capital of Chukotka, searching for fragments of a meteorite unlike any known before. Embedded in the rock could be a form of matter called quasicrystals that had never before been found in nature.

Quasicrystals riff on something as basic as the way atoms (or molecules, or ions) are arranged in materials. When they were first synthesised in a lab in 1982, they overthrew 200 years of scientific dogma about the laws of matter. They form a bridge between ‘true’ crystals like salt and gold, and amorphous, disordered materials like glass, which were the only categories of solid material previously thought to exist.

Quasicrystals changed the very definition of crystals and the assumptions of crystallography—the science used to study the arrangement of atoms in solids. Their discovery allowed materials researchers to play with an infinite new range of atomic structures. The internal structure, in turn, creates the solid’s unique properties. Practical applications for quasicrystals have already been found, such as in the strengthening of steel, and the unique way they interact with light has led to several patents.

Steinhardt had been at the forefront of quasicrystal research—the word ‘quasicrystal’ itself came from a paper he co-authored in 1984. Initially met with scepticism and ridicule, hundreds of quasicrystals had since been found. (They are rather common in certain aluminium metallic phases.) But quasicrystals had only been artificially made in the laboratory, and were therefore thought not to be an important building blocks of the material universe. The primary goal of the Russian expedition was to show beyond a shred of doubt that quasicrystals could form in nature. This would move science one step closer to showing that quasicrystals were as robust (and perhaps as universal) a form of matter as crystals.

Virat Markandeya Virat Markandeya is a freelance journalist based in Delhi, who covers science and technology. He has written for IEEE Spectrum and the Nature Publishing Group among others.

Keywords: Siberia physics minerals