Interview with Professor Paul Steinhardt on the Quest for Quasicrystals

Featured image is of a two-dimensional organic quasicrystal. Source: Natalie Wasio et al., Nature, 2014 via Wired
Image accompanying the Mixcloud link below is an actual image of a “Real Decagonal Quasicrystal with Quasi-unit cell tiling superposed.” Source: Paul Steinhardt (website)
PJSteinhardt
Paul Steinhardt

This is my full interview with Paul Steinhardt, Albert Einstein professor of physics at Princeton University. We spoke about the magnificent quasicrystal – what it is, why they’re special and fascinating, and their incredible discovery (both of the synthetic and natural varieties). This is a fast-moving and hot area of research, and there is surely more to come soon.

 

Update: This was one of my (Stevie’s) first science interviews on WPRB (read: first interviews ever), and Paul was gracious enough to come in and spend the time with me, nonetheless. Sitting at the mic in the mirror studio, he relayed the whole story of how he became fascinated by quasicrystals, a crystal with a quasi-periodic structure and ten fold symmetry that is both mathematically interesting and, it turns out, can have desirable physical properties, like as coating on airplane wings and non-stick frying pans. This eventually led Steinhardt and his team on a quest to the farthest reaches of Russia for a naturally occurring sample that scientists had previously thought couldn’t exist as it would be too fragile. (Though! Quasicrystals were accidentally made in a lab in 1982.)

Listen to the whole story by clicking on the link at the top.

Indeed, the first naturally occurring quasicrystal was found by Paul and his team in 2009, and the second just last year in March 2015. The origins of the crystal are unknown, but due to its atomic makeup and the conditions required for its formation, the best theory involves meteors colliding in space. Steinhardt explained the theory in this interview, and further in an excellent Scientific American article on the topic (emphasis added):

The ratios of isotopes of oxygen in silicate and oxide minerals around the quasicrystal grain are typical of minerals found in meteorites called carbonaceous chondrites, the team reports. This indicates that the rock is of extraterrestrial origin and very old: virtually all chondrites formed at the birth of the Solar System. It is likely, but not certain, that the quasicrystal grain within the meteorite is of roughly the same age. It was found entwined with a silica mineral that forms only at high pressures and temperatures—such as might be created by a collision with the chondrite body.

From “World’s Only Known Natural Quasicrystal Traced to Ancient Meteorite,” Scientific American, Jan. 3, 2012.

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