Quasicrystal quest: The unreal rock that nature made


By Lisa Grossman It was a mineral so remarkable it shouldn’t have existed. What on earth had made it? (Image: Courtesy of Paul Steinhardt) How did a mystery mineral acquire remarkable properties not mimicked in the lab until 30 years ago? Finding out took one cosmologist to the ends of the Earth BY THE time Paul Steinhardt was sure the rock was what he thought it was, there was barely more than a grain of it left. He had to stick the remainder to the end of a glass rod so it wouldn’t get lost. It had taken long enough to get that far. But uncovering this unique rock’s true story would take Steinhardt on a journey almost literally to the ends of the earth – and in some sense, beyond. Neatly dressed, bespectacled and balding, Steinhardt makes an unlikely Indiana Jones figure. His day job is theoretical cosmology. In 2011, he was 58 and had never even been camping. The obsession that led to his suddenly upping sticks had begun in the early 1980s as a mathematical game. Think of choosing bathroom tiles. Regular, repeating patterns of squares, triangles, parallelograms or hexagons joined edge to edge will fill the wall or floor just fine. But any other shape will leave gaps. Or you can relax the rules a little. Allow the tiles to make patterns that are ordered, but don’t repeat, and you can fill a wall completely with pentagons,
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