Like Father, Like Son

A 10-year-old boy spends his summer vacation helping his chemist dad solve the structure of complicated materials.

By | October 1, 2012

Andrzej Krauze

Chemist Sven Hovmöller of Stockholm University had been trying for nearly a decade to determine the structures of materials known as quasicrystals and their nearly identical approximants. Thought to be physically impossible until some 30 years ago, quasicrystals are aperiodic structures—meaning they don’t display the rigidly repeating patterns characteristic of crystals like sodium chloride, for example. Since their discovery in the lab, physicists had been working tirelessly to better understand the structure of quasicrystals. But because the existence of such materials was doubted for so long, computer programs currently used to interpret imaging data aren’t equipped to analyze the aperiodic structures.

Hovmöller has worked on and off in the field of quasicrystals for more than 25 years, focusing primarily on the aluminum-cobalt-nickel (Al-Co-Ni) system. Like other quasicrystal researchers, he studied not the elusive materials themselves but their approximants, which differ in atom placement by only 1 or 2 percent and have more tractable patterns of atomic arrangement. Hovmöller’s interest in quasicrystals was piqued when he saw a conference poster displaying an electron diffraction pattern of one of the Al-Co-Ni approximants. The image was “so beautiful, so clear, [that] it should be possible to solve it,” recalls Hovmöller, who immediately invited Markus Döblinger, the student who made the poster, to do a postdoc in his lab.

But after months of further electron microscopy studies, the duo couldn’t seem to solve the structure. “Not only him and me, but other people also involved, tried so hard, but we didn’t get anywhere,” Hovmöller recalls. “It was extremely annoying."

The image was so beautiful, so clear, that it should be possible to solve it.
—Sven Hovmöller, Stockholm University

Döblinger eventually moved on to the University of Munich, but Hovmöller couldn’t let the idea go. “Every year, once or twice, I [tried] to solve these things, and I just couldn’t.” Then, last summer, he had a seemingly off-the-wall idea. He’d enlist the aid of his 10-year-old son, Linus. “I thought, He’s a smart guy; maybe he could help me,” Hovmöller says.


The father-and-son team sat at the kitchen table for 2 days, poring over the dozens of electron microscopy images Döblinger had generated, as well as some electron diffraction data, which provides more precise information on the materials’ atomic positions. Hovmöller would explain to Linus what he was thinking about how the images all fit together, and when Linus didn’t understand something, he’d interrupt his father to ask. This made Hovmöller realize that he was rushing to conclusions. When he slowed down to clear up Linus’s confusion, he’d get new ideas. “In 2 days, we solved four new structures.”

They published their findings in a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A honoring the 85th birthday of Alan Mackay, who had predicted the existence of quasicrystals before they were identified in 1982. Linus was listed as a coauthor on the paper (370:2949-59, 2012).

“A kid [who] is clever and good at spatial things might well come up with a solution to a problem like that,” says surface physicist Renee Diehl of Penn State University. “I think there’s probably a lot of potential in 10-year-old kids that we’re not tapping.”

And in fact, Linus isn’t as unlikely a character as one might expect in the field of quasicrystals. “There have been a lot of highly creative and unusual people associated with the field,” says Carnegie Mellon University theoretical physicist Mike Widom. Amateur mathematician Robert Ammann, for example, made several significant contributions to quasicrystal theory before the crystals were even proven to exist. Others have pointed to the links between quasicrystals and art, such as aperiodic tilings and mosaics found in Persia. There’s even a company, called Zometool, that manufactures toys used to model quasicrystalline shapes, Widom notes. “The field is quite rich … [in] unusual personalities,” he says. “This boy is in the tradition of the field attracting some nontraditional scientists.”

But all the structures of the Al-Co-Ni quasicrystal and its approximants aren’t exactly solved. “What Sven Hovmöller did is quite nice,” says Walter Steurer of the Laboratory of Crystallography at ETH Zurich, but his methods are qualitative. Thus, Hovmöller and Linus merely mapped out some of the repeating motifs in four of the approximant structures, but “did not publish any atomic coordinates.” The precise locations of some of the crystals’ atoms have yet to be pinpointed.

“A lot of the interesting controversy in the field of quasicrystals has to do with fairly fine details,” which are critically important to understanding the materials’ true structures, Widom says. “You can know where 90 percent of the atoms are, but still not really know the structure because a minority of the atoms are doing interesting and crucial things. . . . What [Hovmöller and Linus] give us is a good starting point for future structure refinement.”

But if someone eventually solves the true structure of the Al-Co-Ni quasicrystal or its approximants, it won’t be Linus. “He’s refused” to work on the remaining structures, Hovmöller says with a laugh. “He’s still a little bit tired” from the last bout of structure solving.

Correction (October 3, 2012): This story has been updated from its original version to correctly reflect that Markus Döblinger's poster presented an electron diffraction pattern, not an electron microscopy image, and that Hovmöller and his son referenced electron diffraction data, not X-ray diffraction data, in deciphering the quasicrystal structures. The Scientist regrets the error.

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Avatar of: Cailean Campbell

Cailean Campbell

Posts: 1457

October 3, 2012

Too be honest, I'm actually not that surprised by the findings. Children have a way of looking at things that us adults have forgotten through out our years. They may not understand what they are looking at or learning, so they take a prolonged time to study it. They don't really jump to a conclusion simply because they don't have a conclusion to jump to. They are still learning their general environment and therefor do not have a set ideal of that eviroment.

Avatar of: Pan Dimensional

Pan Dimensional

Posts: 1457

October 3, 2012

It seemed to be more that the child was a good sounding board; as the guy said, he had to slow down and explain things and it made him realise he'd been unknowingly making assumptions. Even the question 'why?' could cause you to rethink a theory. Not to diminish his contribution, every lab should have an inquisitive child to help with research :)

Avatar of: StarryTelling


Posts: 1

October 3, 2012

Perhaps more of the "general public" should be invited into scientist's offices and be free to ask questions. Perhaps then the GP would be considered more of an asset than a nuisance as it is sometimes made to feel -- unless we have granted funding. However, I have heard it said more than once that many scientists don't like to be asked questions they don't know the answers to.

At the same time, we don't know how much the child assimilated by just being in the environment of his home. My son was unobtrusive in my office for many years after school. But he was quietly paying attention to the dynamics and logisitics all the time. His secret goal was to start a business at a younger age than me (22) and he did.

Avatar of: TorgIshere


Posts: 1

October 3, 2012

Wait... This happened in America? How was he able to pull his kid away from the television? They should write a paper on that... Oh wait... Never mind. This was in Sweden.

Avatar of: Laura


Posts: 1

October 3, 2012

I thought they did that in Munich (=Germany).^^
But never mind. It's still qite unusual for a 10 year old boy to spend his holidays like that. :D

Avatar of: Murcielago


Posts: 1

October 3, 2012

What a wonderful story about father-son collaboration! I
have to wonder, however, whether Linus' contributions were sufficiently
substantial to have merited authorship in a scientific paper. The case reminded
me of another kid, Matthew Berger, who actually discovered the now famous
fossil of Australopithecus Sediba while on a fossil hunt with his father (Science,
April 9th, 2010). In that
case, he was denied authorship in the paper because it was felt that merely
discovering the fossil did not represent sufficient grounds for authorship. Does
being a ‘sounding board’ represent a substantial contribution?

Avatar of: TonyD


Posts: 2

October 8, 2012

"It took me a lifetime to learn how to draw like a child" - Picasso

Avatar of: jeenious


Posts: 45

October 30, 2012

Let us no forget that David Stuart, who contributed the final key to the interpretation of Mayan hieroglyphs, was introduced to those hieroglyphs as a child, and intuited correctly patterns many brilliant adults had not.

Let us think further, also, to MRI studies of differences between patterns that go on in the brains of people who are depressed.  The depressed subject's mind tends to exhibit much back and forth cross talk between areas of the brain, which cross talk consumes much of the brain's capacity to process not only the past but, also, what experience is going on at any given moment.  We know that the depressed subject -- in conjunction with (and possibly as a consequence of) this wasted expenditure of capacity) compromises portions of the brain which otherwise would be available to come up with new, creative ideas, and process new learning.  (This is not to predict which will be found to be the cause, or which the effect, but the cross talk does take up much of the brain's ongoing available electrical and chemical capacity.)

Depression can be found in children, as well as in adults.  The distinction calling for more study, however, is between non-clinically depressed children and non-clinically depressed adults.  Let us consider that the more an adult brain is focused upon reflection on stored experience (including formal education), and the more on-board data that brain seeks to make sure to take into account in analyzing, the less energy is devoted to perceiving new patterns and dynamics of a thing studied, than a mind less experienced and educated.

There are other differences that occur with the physical process of hard-wiring, and aging of the mature brain.  Also, some advantages occur from past learnings where, for example, there are previously learned associations such as, say, grasping the nature of an active verb in one language, and being able to reflect upon that occurrence in learning a second language.  Over time, however, in learning a new language, there is much interference between how thought is processed in terms of the old in ways that conflict with the new.  Thus old information can in the one micro-scenario facilitate, and in another micro-scenario deter new learning, and new avenues of decipherment.

Not only does a child not have to unlearn habits of analyzing something differently but, also, the child's less "loaded" memories are not there to seek to color perceptions which may not apply to new analysis.

At any rate, as TonyD suggests, there are ways in which the mind of an adult must work harder to learn something quite different from new experience, while having more old information to reflect upon.

In some ways, then, where children have seen FARTHER than the giants whose shoulders they have NOT YET learned to climb upon for the purpose, may actually have the advantage in dealing with things no adult yet knows.

This is not to take away from Isaac Newton's humility and honesty in admitting that he added but an increment of originality here and there to things he had learned at university.  It is to say that there are two dimensions at work in all decipherment of nature and data and history and such..

Progress in human understanding must at once take into account things already learned, AND disregard those things, and look at new experience and dzta with an open or "raw" willingness to dispense with the old, to make room for deciphering dynamics which have not been stored yet.

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