On 11 November 1968 a surprising announcement sent shock waves through the field of solid-state physics. That month Physical Review Letters published Stanford Ovshinsky’s “Reversible electrical switching phenomena in disordered structures.”1 The paper described an extremely fast threshold switch and an electronic memory made of amorphous materials, feats that had not been thought possible.

In the 1960s crystals were considered the proper subject of the field, and standard textbooks such as Frederick Seitz’s The Modern Theory of Solids typically began with a presentation of the different crystalline structures. That bias was not an irrational prejudice. It followed from the history of the field, which began with crystallography and started becoming systematic in the 1930s with the application of quantum theory. The regular lattice structure of crystals enabled Felix Bloch to simplify his calculations and “explain how the electrons could sneak by all the ions in a metal.” (See his...

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