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26 Dec 2018

Kinds of Impossibility

Paul Steinhardt. The Second Kind of Impossible: The Extraordinary Quest for a New Form of Matter. Simon and Schuster (8 Jan. 2019)
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When leading Princeton physicist Paul Steinhardt began working in the 1980s, scientists thought they knew all the conceivable forms of matter. The Second Kind of Impossible is the story of Steinhardt's thirty-five-year-long quest to challenge conventional wisdom. It begins with a curious geometric pattern that inspires two theoretical physicists to propose a radically new type of matter--one that raises the possibility of new materials with never before seen properties, but that violates laws set in stone for centuries. Steinhardt dubs this new form of matter "quasicrystal." The rest of the scientific community calls it simply impossible.

The Second Kind of Impossible captures Steinhardt's scientific odyssey as it unfolds over decades, first to prove viability, and then to pursue his wildest conjecture--that nature made quasicrystals long before humans discovered them. Along the way, his team encounters clandestine collectors, corrupt scientists, secret diaries, international smugglers, and KGB agents. Their quest culminates in a daring expedition to a distant corner of the Earth, in pursuit of tiny fragments of a meteorite forged at the birth of the solar system.

Steinhardt's discoveries chart a new direction in science. They not only change our ideas about patterns and matter, but also reveal new truths about the processes that shaped our solar system. The underlying science is important, simple, and beautiful--and Steinhardt's firsthand account is an engaging scientific thriller.