Hidden in Plain Site


 

Hidden in Plain Sight

 

Bindi is, in many ways, a study in contrast to Steinhardt. Where the latter can be collected and circumspect, Bindi is energetic, a fast and reactive speaker with an infectious enthusiasm for his work. In 2007, he was newly appointed as the head of the division of mineralogy at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Florence, the curator of more than 50,000 mineral samples collected from around the world. Bindi thought that if a quasicrystal was hiding in someone’s collection, it might as well be his, and so he agreed to enlist in Steinhardt’s search.

“Steinhardt had already identified several candidates, but none worked out,” Bindi said. “I decided to look at samples with aluminum alloys, which had compositions similar to known quasicrystals.” Over the course of the next year, Bindi would slice razor-thin portions of already tiny grains, then mount them on a glass fiber for examination. It was slow, tedious work that required a great deal of precision. It also meant the destruction of large portions of the material.

Bindi’s eureka moment came on October 2008, when he prepared 46407/G. The rock grain contained a unique blend of copper, zinc, and aluminum interwoven with other minerals—and a few grains of something Bindi couldn’t identify. When he conducted the X-ray diffraction test, it was filled with the spikes and patterns that Steinhardt and Lu predicted. Bindi was stunned. “I absolutely felt, ‘My God, I think I’ve found it!’” —but his excitement was met with an unexpected splash of cold water. 

 
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“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Steinhardt reminded. He then asked Bindi to send him the sample directly.

When the package arrived at Princeton that December, Steinhardt frowned. The sample was incredibly small, and the work Bindi had already performed meant that there was little material left over. “I had to really squint just to see a couple of the grains,” Steinhardt said. “I was doubtful that we would have enough for all of the experiments we wanted to perform.” 

On the morning of New Year’s Eve 2008, Steinhardt trudged across Princeton’s frozen and dead-quiet campus to the university’s PRISM Imaging Center. With no one else in the building, Steinhardt and the center’s director loaded the sample into a powerful electron microscope and switched it on. The screen lit up with a diffraction pattern of dazzling white dots arranged in a starburst pattern, a bit like looking at a streetlight through a kaleidoscope. Steinhardt leaned in; he recognized the pattern immediately. 

Without question, it was a quasicrystal.

“The first spot that we hit was just spectacular,” Steinhardt said. “I guess I had expected to see something with many defects, but this diffraction pattern was as nice as any I had ever seen.”

Steinhardt dashed an email back to Bindi, “Happy Quasi–New Year.”

Tracing the Origin

Now that Steinhardt was in possession of what he knew to be a quasicrystal, two questions confronted him: How exactly did this rock come to be? And how did it wind up in Bindi’s collection? The first was a scientific problem, the second more of one for a detective. Both proved to be vexing. Steinhardt started by taking the sample to Lincoln Hollister, a professor of geosciences at Princeton and a leading petrologist—someone who investigates the origins of rocks. Hollister took a look, then offered some bad news. “What you have here is impossible,” he said. 

There it was, that word again, “impossible.”

Hollister elaborated that the rock couldn’t be natural. First, the sample contained metallic aluminum, which is present on Earth only in man-made form. Aluminum has a strong affinity for oxygen, and binds to it to make aluminum oxide. More puzzling, the substance contained copper, which doesn’t mix with aluminum except in rare manufactured alloys. Steinhardt pressed, “Could it be a meteorite?” They took the sample to specialists in meteorites, who initially ruled out the possibility that it was extraterrestrial.

Hollister’s conclusion: The sample was artificial, likely a piece of slag, or waste from a factory. It could not have formed naturally. 

“I have to admit, it was pretty depressing,” Steinhardt said. After the initial excitement, he was now unsure just what he had. Was he really looking at a piece of slag? Could runoff from some mining facility truly produce something as exotic as a quasicrystal? If the rock was not natural, then its significance was severely diminished.

He needed more information.

 
 

Secrets within Secrets

Back in Italy, Bindi had also hit a wall. “It was the fall of 2009. I remember sitting at a dinner party one night, utterly frustrated,” Bindi said. He regaled fellow guests with his own efforts to find the source of 46407/G. The sample was labeled khatyrkite, a name that referred to where it was purported to have been found: Khatyrka, located in the Koryak Mountains, a remote mountain range in far-northeastern Siberia. There were some other samples of khatyrkite in museums, but testing revealed all to be fakes, which is less rare than one might imagine; mineralogy is a collector’s game, and prone to counterfeiting.

This meant that there were only two confirmed rocks: theirs and the holotype—the original specimen—which was housed in the St. Petersburg Museum in Russia. There was a good deal of information on the holotype in the 1985 paper naming it. If the samples were related, then they would know much more about their rock’s origins. But other than sharing a name, there was no direct evidence linking the two, and the museum would not allow direct testing. They reached out to the paper’s author, a retired platinum specialist named Leonid Razin, but were greeted with suspicion. While Razin officially named the mineral khatyrkite, their interactions left Steinhardt uncertain how much the former Soviet scientist actually knew, or whether he had even been the one to retrieve it.

With the holotype a dead end, it added pressure to trace the exact steps of 46407/G. Bindi found that his museum had acquired the specimen in a collection bought from a Dutch gem dealer named Nicholas Koekoek. 

“But who is this Koekoek?” Bindi lamented to his friends at the dinner. “He’s nowhere to be found on the Internet, and the last name is a common one. It’s like looking for John Smith.”

“I know an old woman named Koekoek,” one of the fellow dinner guests, who also lived in Amsterdam, said. “I can ask her. Maybe she’ll know somebody.” Bindi shrugged, at that point resigned that any lead, however thin, was worth a shot. Then, days later, he got a call with surprising news: The woman was in fact the gem dealer’s widow. Bindi booked the soonest possible flight to Amsterdam.

Meeting in her dim apartment, Koekoek’s widow shared with Bindi a “secret diary” that had belonged to her husband. Within its pages was an entry detailing the khatyrkite: It came from a Romanian smuggler identified only as Tim. Bindi tried for months to track Tim down, but could find no trace of him. “This ‘Tim’ was even more mysterious than the first gem dealer,” Bindi said. “There was no evidence he had traded with anyone else.” So Bindi went back to the widow six months later, hoping for a little more information.

Then, to Bindi’s immense surprise, the widow went to her bookshelves and retrieved a second diary—a “secret, secret diary.” Koekoek apparently kept two versions of his notes, one to protect his sources and presumably himself, and one that acted as his definitive record. This second secret diary revealed a different name as the supplier of the khatyrkite, and a familiar one: Leonid Razin.

“So there Razin was again,” Steinhardt said. “He was the source of both the sample in St. Petersburg and ours
in Florence.” 

Steinhardt remained wary of Razin, and began to feel somewhat adrift in his search. The Princeton professor’s world was in the cosmos. He traded in theories and experimentation, not gemstones, smugglers, and secret diaries. Still, both scientists and detectives required one thing in common: hard evidence.

Hoping for another clue, Steinhardt began to pore back over the original 1985 paper when he stopped on a name: Valery Kryachko. Most had assumed Kryachko was a local miner who perhaps had helped the science team, and that was all. But Steinhardt suddenly recalled having seen the same name in other scientific papers. Kryachko might be more involved than previously thought.

Steinhardt and Bindi found Kryachko, now in his 60s living part-time in Moscow, and reached out via email. To their delight—they learned that he was a mineralogist, and, in fact, he had also heard of them. Kryachko had read with interest the articles published in academic journals about their quasicrystal search, though he had no idea he might somehow be connected. 

Kryachko confirmed that, indeed, he had been the one to find the khatyrkite. As a young geologist, he had been sent in 1979 to the Siberian peninsula by Razin to search for
platinum and gold deposits. He didn’t find any gold, but Kryachko did come back with some small, interesting nuggets he couldn’t identify and gave them to Razin.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Steinhardt said. “We called just hoping for a lead on our sample, and we found the very man who may have retrieved it.”

Even better, Kryachko said that he remembered the exact spot—and would be willing to take them there.