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17th October 2017

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Frying pans and fire alarms

So, the news we have been waiting for all year has finally arrived. First, the IgNobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami of Japan, for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi – pungent horseradish – to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency. The award, which purports to recognise science achievements that make people laugh – then make them think – also has a more serious angle, as the researchers are now applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm with a US patent application on the technology filed in February 2009.

Hot on the heels of this news was the announcement by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences that the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is Dan Shechtman, at Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel – and another name I confess that I didn’t automatically recognise even after nearly 20 years in science journalism. 

Shechtman’s achievement has apparently been to change fundamentally how we all think of solid matter, a feat made possible by his 1982 discovery of so-called quasicrystals. In all solid matter, atoms were previously believed to be packed inside crystals in symmetrical patterns that were repeated periodically over and over again. This repetition was thought to be required in order to obtain a crystal.

In Shechtman's quasicrystals, however, the atoms in are packed in a pattern that can not be repeated – not unlike those of the aperiodic mosaics found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain and the Darb-i Imam Shrine in Iran. This organisation is apparently described by a mathematical rule called the ‘golden ratio’, familiar to the ancient Greek mathematicians, in which the ratio of various distances between atoms is related to the golden mean.

Shechtman's discovery has led to the finding of yet more quasicrystals from unlikely sources including a Russian river and even steel, and they may yet find practical use as a reinforcement for frying pans among other applications. ‘It’s a great work of discovery, with potential applications that range from light-emitting diodes to improved diesel engines,’ according to Nancy Jackson, president of the American Chemical Society. As for airborne wasabi, meanwhile, who knows: it might even one day be helping to save lives.


Cath O'Driscoll, Deputy Editor

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