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Dan Shechtman: From “Nonsense” to Nobel Prize
November 11, 2011 by Howard Blas

Dan Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of quasicrystals, a discovery that initially made him the laughingstock of the scientific world.

“The stone that the builders despised has become the cornerstone” – Psalms 118:22

People laughed at him. His colleagues publicly ridiculed him and called his ideas “nonsense.” But now they admit that he was right all along. Quasicrystals do exist and Dan Shechtman, professor at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, will soon be awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering them.

Before Shechtman came along, scientists believed that the atoms in crystals were arranged in a certain way—a periodic order that repeats itself. Shechtman, on the other hand, discovered that atoms could be ordered in a different way—a pentagonal symmetrical shape that never repeats. Fortunately, Shechtman knows the true meaning of hatmadah (perseverance). He successfully convinced the scientific world of his discovery and now quasicrystals are being used to better people’s lives. Quasicrystals are now used, for example, in thin needles made specifically for eye surgery.

We caught up with Professor Shechtman to find out more about his discovery, his determination, and his life experiences.

BABA: How would you explain what quasicrystals are?

SHECHTMAN: This is difficult. My granddaughter, age 9, knows how to explain it and she did on Israeli television. There is a YouTube video of me on the Technion site. [Watch the video below.] There, I speak very slowly and it is in English—it is the best simple explanation I can give.

BABA: How did people react when you first started speaking about quasicrystals?

SHECHTMAN: People thought I was wrong and that what I said was unacceptable. They said it went against the grain of science. Friends tried to divert me to the right directions; enemies tried to mock me and expel me from the scientific group. In the first year or two, life was not easy; that is okay—some suffer for their beliefs. The Jewish people have suffered for thousands of years for their beliefs. I knew I was right and can prove it.

BABA: How are perseverance and determination essential to achieving one’s goals?

SHECHTMAN: If you find something new and unusual and you are a good enough scientist who can trust your findings, then you should stand behind your idea and fight for it—and also listen to others. In most cases, people are wrong when they say they discovered something new. New discoveries are rare. But if you know you are right, be ready to fight—but be aware that you may be mistaken and be ready to listen to other people. That’s exactly what I did—I listened to others.

BABA: What, in your opinion, makes a “good scientist?”

SHECHTMAN: The virtues and character of a good scientist should include a humble attitude and willingness to listen; but on the other hand, you should stand and fight for your beliefs if you are convinced you are correct.

BABA: What was your childhood like in Israel?

SHECHTMAN: I was born in Tel Aviv. At 3, my parents and I moved to Ramat Gan, a town near Tel Aviv, where I did my primary school studies. After I graduated 8th grade, we moved to Petach Tikvah, a town east of Tel Aviv; it is there that I did my high school studies. At that time, I had to choose what to study—humanistic studies; biology; or realistic studies, which is math, physics and chemistry. I chose realistic studies, then did military service. I went to the Technion to continue my studies for my bachelors, masters, and PhD. I then did a post doctorate at Aerospace Research Laboratories at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, from 1972 to 1975. After that, I came back to the Technion, where I have held every possible position—lecturer, senior lecturer—every rank through distinguished professor!

BABA: What did you want to be when you grew up?

SHECHTMAN: A mechanical engineer. It is all because of a book by Jules Verne called, “The Mysterious Island.” The book describes five men who flee from Atlanta in a hot air balloon during the Civil War in the United States. They are stranded on an island with no civilization and they manage to create life. The main character is Cyrus Smith, an engineer. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be able to make everything! I always thought there was nothing better than to be a mechanical engineer!

BABA: Who were your heroes growing up?

SHECHTMAN: Cyrus Smith from the book and also my grandfather. He came to Israel from Russia in 1906—105 years ago. He was a leader in Israel, a founder of the Labor Party, and a friend of the country.

BABA: Any advice for our readers?

SHECHTMAN: Study, study, study! Find something that interests you. Become knowledgeable; read about it, Google it, go to the Internet. Science and technology are wonderful!

BABA: Thank you, Professor Shechtman, and congratulations on winning the Nobel Prize!


Israel’s Nobel Prize Winners:

Dan Shechtman, Chemistry, 2011
Ada E. Yonath, Chemistry, 2009
Robert Aumann, Economics, 2005
Aaron Ciechanover, Chemistry, 2004
Avram Hershko, Chemistry, 2004
Dan Kahneman, Economics, 2002
Yitzhak Rabin, Peace, 1994
Shimon Peres, Peace, 1994
Menachem Begin, Peace, 1978
Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Literature, 1966

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