Review: The Second Kind of Impossible

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The Second Kind of ImpossiblePaul J. Steinhardt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Summary: A narrative of the search for a new form of matter, first theorized, then synthesized, and then first found in a mineral collection of questionable provenance that gave tantalizing hints that it might really exist.

This is a real science detective story. It has all the hopeful leads and unsettling reverses of a detective mystery, and one where the lead character, in this case the lead researcher, finds himself in a situation far removed from the normal environs of a theoretical physicist.

It begins with the question of whether an impossible five-fold symmetry could be possible under some circumstance.  Then Paul Steinhardt, and a graduate student, Dov Levine,  began began looking for a loophole to the forbidden five-fold symmetry, and found it, suggesting the possibility for something they termed quasi-crystals. Meanwhile, in another lab, a researcher synthesized a compound that turned out to have the predicted electron diffraction pattern. It takes the two labs a couple years to find out about each other but it demonstrates that something that seems impossible can actually exist, hence the title of this book, coming from Richard Feynman’s response to a paper by Steinhardt, who had been mentored by him. It was the kind of impossible that defies known knowledge but has an intriguing logic to it.

The next phase of Steinhardt’s research was to discover whether such a quasi-crystal actually exists in nature–the quest for a needle in a haystack as it were. He and a student comb mineral collections around the world, looking for promising diffraction patterns. They strike out over and over again until they find one sample in an Italian mineral collection administered by Luca Bindi. Part two of this book describes all the tests to confirm that this tiny sample indeed has a quasi-crystal imbedded in it and all the arguments against it. Then another sample is discovered in Russia, but the scientist, a Russian official, will not share it except for an exorbitant price. Furthermore, questions arise about both samples and their provenance–until the field researcher who actually found the material is discovered and agrees to help them find the tiny stream and collect additional samples.

The third part of the book is the trip to this stream, in a remote part of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Steinhardt, who has never done this kind of field work, is leader of the team, and against all the improbabilities, the challenges of mosquitoes, weather, bears, and the terrain, they find additional samples, leading to discoveries of other quasi-crystals, and clues to how this material was formed.

One of the fascinating qualities of this book was the quest that started with a theoretical question and eventually led to a remote peninsula of Kamchatka. For those not acquainted with the life of a research scientist, this account captures something of the excitement of pursuing a really interesting research question, how one question can lead to another, and the roadblocks and dead ends researchers sometimes encounter along the way. What we realize eventually is that all this takes over thirty years, and involves collaboration with a number of researchers from Russia, Italy, and all over the U.S. It is not the only research Steinhardt works on, but imagine spending most of one’s adult working life pursuing a research question. The combination of curiosity and sheer perseverance commands a certain kind of respect.

The other fascinating aspect of this book was understanding how research science works. Richard Feynman is not the only one to declare “impossible.” Some did so with outright opposition for good scientific reasons. This happens constantly in the submission of research papers and at scientific conferences. Steinhardt enlists his opponents on his research team, forming a “red team” and a “blue team” with opposing views. The opposing teams were good at recommending all the tests that would eliminate alternative possibilities. Eventually the opposition, formidable researchers in their own right, are convinced–but that took years.

This is a good book to illustrate the skepticism, the meticulous rigor, and the self-correcting character of scientific research at its best. The other wonderful aspect that arises out of this process is the international collaboration of people willing to share knowledge, samples, and credit, to advance a shared understanding of the world, indeed the universe. In short, this is a great book to see how science really works at its best.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Second Kind of Impossible

  1. Thanks for the tip off re this book; gonna read that one.  In some circles, science needs a pat on the back!Terry Morris

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