Science·Audio

11-year-old boy helps solve chemistry puzzle

An 11-year-old Swedish boy is attracting media attention around the world after helping his father solve a chemistry problem that had stumped him and his colleagues for years and getting his name in the peer-reviewed journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.
Diagrams of the atomic structure of a type of quasi-crystal known as a pseudo-decagonal approximant. This specific compound is known as PD3c, and its structure was identified by the Swedish chemist Sven Hovmöller with the help of his son, Linus Hovmöller Zou, who was 10 at the time. (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A/rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org)

An 11-year-old Swedish boy is attracting media attention around the world after helping his father solve a chemistry problem that had stumped him and his colleagues for years and getting his name published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Sven Hovmöller, a professor in the department of materials and environmental chemistry at Stockholm University, knew his son, Linus Hovmöller Zou, was a whiz at Sudoku and other number- and geometry-based puzzles so he asked him to help him come up with the geometric structure of a series of quasi-crystals known as pseudo-decagonal approximants.

"The day before, we had done some Sudokus, and I couldn't keep up with him," Hovmöller told Carol Off, host of CBC Radio's As It Happens. "I just asked him this one Saturday morning; 'Would you like to sit down and have a look at this?' and he said. 'OK.'"

Hovmöller and his colleagues had spent eight years using X-ray crystallography and electron diffraction to try to identify the atomic structures of a family of eight of the crystal-like compounds, only two of whose structures had been solved up to that point.

After years of staring at countless images of the compounds, Hovmöller figured he could use a fresh perspective, and since the problem was less one of chemistry than geometry, he thought it was one his son, who was 10 at the time, could tackle.

"You don't need, really, any chemistry background to start working on this problem," Hovmöller told As It Happens. "He has a fresh brain. He didn't know anything when he started. He could learn just enough to concentrate on the next step."

So, Linus and Hovmöller sat down at the kitchen table and started playing with the patterns of the quasi-crystals. After two long days of hard work, they had identified the structures of four more of the compounds.

"Maybe the most remarkable [thing] wasn't that he sat down in the first place but that he didn't stand up and say. 'OK that's enough' after an hour or two," Hovmöller said.

The father and son team's findings are published in the June 28 issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A (Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences).

Listen to Carol Off's interview with Hovmöller by clicking on the player above.

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