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College of Science & Mathematics

Once Upon a Time...

“Once upon a time in Kamchatka” isn’t a typical fairy tale title.

“Everything I’m about to tell you is the truth,” began Paul Steinhardt, Albert Einstein professor in science at Princeton University, “and like all fairy tales, it involves the impossible.”
In a story that involved grand adventure, ex-KGB members and bears, Steinhardt captivated his audience in Boyd Recital Hall as part of The College of Science and Mathematics’ “Dean’s Distinguished Speaker Series.”

Professor Steinhardt enlightens the audience with a defraction experiment

Former Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows and P.A.M. Dirac medal holder from the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, for his contribution to the development of the inflationary model of the universe, Steinhardt was on the trail once again for another major discovery: quasicrystals- once thought never to exist in the earth’s natural environment.

The story began with what Steinhardt called a simple theory: symmetry. Before his major discovery, Steinhardt explained that there were only five shapes put of which perfect patterns could be constructed: triangle, parallelogram, square, rectangle and hexagon.

“These patterns can be found in Islamic tiling all throughout history,” Steinhardt said. “Crystals have the same type of symmetry as well and they follow the exact same geometric principles.”

Using a method known as defraction, Steinhardt demonstrated how crystals form symmetrical patterns by providing a simple laser light show, in which he taught the audience what an interference pattern is: a sharp spot image that projects the crystals number pattern and symmetry. The audience was amazed.
That was until Steinhardt dared to ask the impossible.

“Can non-symmetrical crystals exist in the Earth’s environment naturally?”
Non-symmetrical crystals are called “quasicrystals” for their hidden structure that is unpredictable.

Through a series of research endeavors, “and just a little luck, like a fairy tale,” Steinhardt found himself hiking in the mountain ranges of Chukotka, located in far east Russia, panning through sediment with hand trowels, combing the tundra with “tanks,” Steinhardt chuckled. The fairy tale involving his research team, seeking to defy what was thought impossible, was born.

Students and faculty were filled with amazement and laughter throughout the entire presentation.
“Having Professor Steinhardt at Rowan was a special treat for us,” said CSM Dean Parviz Ansari. “He masterfully gave a scientific presentation in the form of an intriguing story filled with twists and adventure. His talk was fun, exciting and informative. He made our speaker series more distinguished.”

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