The 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded today to Daniel Shechtman of the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Shechtman discovered what are called quasicrystals, a finding that fundamentally altered the understanding of solid matter.

At an announcement event today in Stockholm, Sven Lidin of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences described the atoms and clusters within a quasicrystal: “It is perfectly ordered, it is infinite—and yet it never repeats itself.”

Such patterns can be seen in Islamic mosaics and the tilings of mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. "Daniel Shechtman’s discovery was to show that they existed also in chemical systems…the most important thing about the quasicrystals are their meaning for fundamental science," Lidin said. "They have rewritten the first chapter in the textbooks of ordered matter.

“But we also find them in useful objects," he added. "… They have been used in experiments to strengthen turbine blades…these applications come out of the specific properties of quasicrystals, that they are poor conductors of heat…they have low friction and they have low adhesion properties.”

Shectman made his initial observations on quasicrystals while working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in Gaithersburg, Md.

Click here for a story on quasicrystal patterns in Islamic mosaics.

Martin Gardner wrote about Penrose tiles and quasicrystals in his final column for Scientific American.

This video features Schechtman discussing quasicrystals and scientists' initial reactions to his findings.