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When Paul Steinhardt made a discovery that he had been working toward for more than 20 years, he did not cry “Eureka!” On that winter morning in the lab in 2009, he writes, he and a colleague “were dead silent, because no words were necessary.”

Steinhardt had just found a natural quasicrystal, a solid whose atoms flout the laws of crystallography by having order that does not repeat. The quasicrystal was in a rock that had been sequestered in a museum in Florence. In The Second Kind of Impossible, Steinhardt, a theoretical physicist, chronicles the detective work that led to his no-eureka-necessary moment — and sent him from Princeton University to the wilds of Siberia to find out how that rock had formed.

The very idea of quasicrystals was once derided. Chemist Linus Pauling joked, “There is no such thing as quasicrystals. Only quasi-scientists.” But in the 1980s, Steinhardt wondered if quasicrystals were truly out of the question, or if they were a “second kind of impossible” — something achievable under conditions that just hadn’t been considered yet. By 2009, scientists had synthesized these supposedly impossible materials. Steinhardt wondered if nature could make them too.

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Category: Science