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Nobel Prize

December 10, 2011

Almost three decades ago, Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman made a discovery that turned the field of crystallography on its head. After years of criticism - and ridicule - he's collecting a Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Daniel Shechtman poses next to a microscope
Shechtman didn't let the 'laws of science' get in his wayImage: Department of Materials Engineering/Haifa

For 70 years, scientists were in agreement that matter was constructed of atoms, and that, when viewed as crystals, they appeared in an endlessly repeating symmetrical pattern. But on April 18, 1982, during a sabbatical in at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC, Shechtman saw something different in his transmission electron microscope: he saw crystals with pentagonal symmetry.

Of course, breaking the laws of nature carried consequences, not least among Shechtman's academic colleagues, who laughed at him for years. One colleague even called Shechtman a disgrace and kicked him out of their research group. It would take five years for Shechtman to prove the truth of his discovery.

Rocking the boat

In a recent interview at Haifa's Technion University, Shechtman admitted he could hardly believe the find himself at first, "I was definitely surprised and I said to myself, there is no such animal because this is forbidden in the laws of classic crystallography."

Still, Shechtman pressed on, confident in his professional judgment.

Ho-Mg-Zn dodecahedral crystal
Shechtman's colleagues laughed when he said he'd found crystals with pentagonal symmetryImage: public domain

"Facing the opposition at the beginning was quite tough," he said. "I looked for another group to join, and somebody took the orphan to his group.

"I knew I was right and they were wrong. They did not offer an explanation; they just said, 'this cannot be,' which I said myself, 'but here it is, let's find out what it is.'"

In 1987, French and Japanese researchers grew crystals large enough to prove Shechtman's findings. In just 2009 in Russia, quasicrystals were discovered in nature for the first time. Today, quasicrystals, which have been found in one of the most durable kinds of steel, are being tested for use in converting heat to electricity.

'Danny speaking'

As one of seven distinguished professors at Technion - and now one of the institution's three Nobel laureates - Shechtman is known for his modesty. He still answers the phone with his first name: "Danny speaking."

Shechtman was also quick to say that the prize is not his alone.

"This is a prize for the whole community," he said. "Really the whole community is joyful; I feel like a spearhead, or like in the Olympics, the one who carries the flag.

"There is a whole community that's dedicated themselves to the study of quasi-periodic materials, thousands of them."

Looking forward

As a community leader himself, Shechtman has worked to empower new, young leaders. One of his initiatives is the university's entrepreneurship course.

Twenty-five years ago, he said, Technion was producing high-quality graduates who were prepared to get good jobs. He thought the university should do more, that it should prepare them to set up their own companies.

Quasicrystals appear in a mosaic patternImage: public domain

"This is a way to provide employment satisfaction and salaries to the gifted people," he said. "Not everyone can do it or will do it, but it is the future of every country. Innovation and start-ups are the future of the world."

With characteristic optimism he booked the university's largest lecture hall for his first class.

"I don't want to talk to five students; I want to talk to 500. I want to spread the gospel of entrepreneurship."

Shechtman, today a science celebrity, tours Israel, talking to high school students, not just about quasicrystals, but about pursuing knowledge and defending what one has learned.

He tells them to "listen to others - but stand tall. Don't just yield because some important person tells you that you are wrong."

"Also I am telling the students to become an expert in something, whatever you choose. Become an expert, choose a subject now in high school, start now because the information is available. You can call the experts, call a professor, talk to them and they will talk to you.

"If you become an expert in something, you will succeed. In every field there are frontiers; just choose your field, and there will be a frontier there for you to choose."

Author: Irris Makler, Haifa / dl

Editor: Sean Sinico