One of the most fascinating scientific detective stories of the last fifty years, an exciting quest for a new form of matter. The Second Kind of Impossible reads like James Gleick’s Chaos combined with an Indiana Jones adventure.
When leading Princeton physicist Paul Steinhardt began working in the 1980s, scientists thought they knew all the conceivable forms of matter. The Second Kind of Impossible is the story of Steinhardt’s thirty-five-year-long quest to challenge conventional wisdom. It begins with a curious geometric pattern that inspires two theoretical physicists to propose a radically new type of matter—one that raises the possibility of new materials with never before seen properties, but that violates laws set in stone for centuries. Steinhardt dubs this new form of matter “quasicrystal.” The rest of the scientific community calls it simply impossible.
The Second Kind of Impossible captures Steinhardt’s scientific odyssey as it unfolds over decades, first to prove viability, and then to pursue his wildest conjecture—that nature made quasicrystals long before humans discovered them. Along the way, his team encounters clandestine collectors, corrupt scientists, secret diaries, international smugglers, and KGB agents. Their quest culminates in a daring expedition to a distant corner of the Earth, in pursuit of tiny fragments of a meteorite forged at the birth of the solar system.
Steinhardt’s discoveries chart a new direction in science. They not only change our ideas about patterns and matter, but also reveal new truths about the processes that shaped our solar system. The underlying science is important, simple, and beautiful—and Steinhardt’s firsthand account is an engaging scientific thriller.
Potentially Sensitive Areas: None
Booklist (December 1, 2018 (Vol. 115, No. 7))
Two centuries after the French priest René-Just Haüy launched the science of crystallography, Steinhardt and a resourceful support team retrieved from the tundra of Kamchatka astonishing meteorite samples compelling researchers to rethink the fundamental principles of that science. As Steinhardt explains, the samples he helped discover reveal that in the astral fires of the Big Bang, nature created strange quasicrystals manifesting symmetries long thought to be utterly impossible. Readers see the culmination of years of arduous labors—conceptual, professional, legal, and logistic—as they learn how Steinhardt and a savvy research assistant transgressed the limits of the possible by imagining the radical structure of hypothetical quasicrystals, how Japanese researchers actually synthesized such quasicrystals in the laboratory, how an Italian scientist triggered an international debate by identifying a museum sample as a naturally occurring quasicrystal, and, finally, how that Italian scientist joined Steinhardt and other intrepid scientists to visit one of the planet’s remotest regions, there to verify their hypotheses about such quasicrystals and their origins. Cutting-edge science as high adventure.
Kirkus Reviews (October 15, 2018)
An admirable popular account of the quasicrystal, an oddball arrangement of atoms that seems to contradict scientific laws. Steinhardt (Physics and Astrophysical Sciences/Princeton Univ.; co-author: Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang, 2006), a pioneer in the field and a fine writer, makes a mighty effort to describe a complex chemical phenomenon; he mostly succeeds. Readers should carefully read his explanation of how pure substances such as minerals form periodic, symmetric arrangements of atoms called crystals, which must fit together with no gaps into which other atoms can squeeze. Only three forms qualify: the tetrahedron, the triangular prism, and the parallelepiped (six-sided box). Popular writers use the tiling analogy. To install a bathroom floor, only square, triangular, or hexagonal tiles fit perfectly. Just as you can’t fit pentagonal or octagonal tiles into the floor, no crystal can have five or eight or any larger-sided symmetry. This was the rule—not really a formal law—until Roger Penrose invented Penrose tiles in the 1970s. These can fill any room despite having bizarre shapes. Intrigued, scientists began producing five, eight, and other many-sided “quasicrystals” by heating and rapidly cooling metals in the laboratory. Thankfully, Steinhardt turns his attention from crystal theory to chronicle a gripping scientific quest. He and his colleagues searched the world’s mineralogical collections, drawing a blank until minuscule specks from Italy showed promise. Proof required finding similar pieces in a natural location, an exhaustive 10-year process that began with frustrating detective work to discover the specimen’s source, followed by an expedition to Siberia and success in 2009. Scientists figured out that natural quasicrystals form through temperatures and pressures that don’t exist on Earth; they’re found in meteorite fragments. The research continues, and it will hopefully produce technological marvels (or maybe not). Meanwhile, readers will enjoy this enthusiastic introduction to a weird but genuine new form of matter.
About the Author
Paul J. Steinhardt is the Albert Einstein Professor in Science at Princeton University, where he is on the faculty of both the departments of Physics and Astrophysical Sciences. He cofounded and directs the Princeton Center for Theoretical Science. He has received the Dirac Medal and other prestigious awards for his work on the early universe and novel forms of matter. He is the author of The Second Kind of Impossible, and the coauthor of Endless Universe with Neil Turok, which describes the two competing ideas in cosmology to which he contributed. With his student, Dov Levine, Steinhardt first invented the theoretical concept of quasicrystals before they were synthesized in a laboratory. More than three decades later, with Luca Bindi, he guided the team that led to the discovery of three different natural quasicrystals in the Kamchatka Peninsula. In 2014, the International Mineralogical Association named a new mineral “steinhardtite” in his honor.
His website is paulsteinhardt.org
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