Technion’s Shechtman becomes nation’s 10th Nobel laureate

Materials scientist overcame ridicule to show world the seriousness of his new type of crystal; Netanyahu: Prize reflects intellect of our people.

October 6, 2011 01:51
Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman

Dan Shechtman 311. (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

Israel’s 10th Nobel Prize – and fourth in chemistry – was awarded on Wednesday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to Prof. Dan Shechtman, a materials science scientist at Haifa’s Technion- Israel Institute of Technology.

His discovery in 1982 that atoms in rigid crystals can be packed together in unusual ways led to the development of extremely strong materials from metal surgical tools and razor blades to diesel engines, and as protective coatings and metal alloys. What became known as quasiperiodic or quasicrystals do not rust or become oxidized and have almost no surface friction.

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The Tel Aviv-born scientist, who is also an associate of the US Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and a professor at Iowa State University, found that atoms in crystals could be structured in an unrepeatable pattern that looked like the Arab-style floor mosaics. The structure was described by the Nobel committee as “the fascinating mosaics of the Arabic world reproduced at the level of atoms.”

As scientists all believed until then that crystal patterns had to be repetitious to be crystals, Shechtman was ridiculed and treated with hostility for his ideas for years, even by his friends and colleagues. Weizmann Institute of Science Prof. Ada Yonath, who won for Israel a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2009, was similarly the butt of jokes for her pioneering work on the structure on ribosomes in the cell.

Even Prof. Linus Pauling, the American double-Nobel laureate who made important discoveries in quantum chemistry and molecular biology and created controversy for his advocacy in high-dose vitamin C, claimed Shechtman was “talking nonsense.”

Pauling, until his death in 1994, was the only one who stubbornly refused to recognize the Technion scientist’s discovery.

Upon hearing the announcement, Shechtman was forthcoming in sharing the honor.

“I think this is a great day for me, of course, but also a great day for the country,” he said at a press conference.

The prize does not belong to him alone, he continued.

“There are thousands of scientists that research the subject I developed, and I’m sure they all see the prize as an achievement for themselves as well, and indeed they deserve it.”

Accompanied by his wife and grandson, Shechtman said he was somewhat overwhelmed by the media attention. After the official announcement, “all hell broke loose,” he said in English. A string of media and congratulatory phone calls prevented him from personally relaying the news to his daughters in the United States.

“I don’t envy any celebrity,” he joked.

The 70-year-old Shechtman, married and the father of four, earned his three degrees at the Technion. He was on sabbatical almost three decades ago at the US National Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC, when he discovered the icosahedral phase, which opened the new field of quasiperiodic crystals.

After receiving his doctorate, Shechtman was an NRC fellow at the Aerospace Research Laboratories at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where for three years he studied the microstructure and physical metallurgy of titanium aluminides.

He joined the Technion’s department of materials engineering in 1975. During his sabbatical in the early 1980s at Johns Hopkins University, he discovered the icosahedral phase. He was amazed to discover in an electron microscope that the new crystal he had discovered was symmetrical and could be turned around five times without looking different; this was considered “impossible” according to existing theory.

Shechtman was turned down by the Journal of Applied Physics, which claimed that his discovery “would not interest physicists”; he sent it to Metallurgical Transactions, which accepted his paper, but its editors said it would take a year to publish.

He refused to wait, but instead, wrote a more abbreviated article for Physical Review Letters, along with three colleagues, that was published within a few weeks and aroused much interest and controversy among physicists and then chemists and mathematicians.

Today, hundreds of synthetic materials with the unusual structure have been produced. Conferences on the subject are held annually, and more than 40 scientific volumes have been published in the field.

Among the numerous Israeli and international prizes he has received are the Israel Prize, the Wolf Prize, the EMET Prize, the European Materials Research Society 25th Anniversary Award, the Gregori Aminoff Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Weizmann Science Award and the Rothschild Prize.

President Shimon Peres called Shechtman to congratulate him.

“Your win is promising and gives hope. There are not many nations who have won so many Nobel Prizes. You have given the State of Israel a wonderful gift,” he said.

“This is a big day for Haifa, a big day for the Technion and for the State of Israel. The State of Israel needs your Nobel Prize; you are the 10th [Israeli] to achieve this.

“You are the crown jewel,” Peres continued. “You provide hope and serve as an example to the younger generation. You demonstrate that a thinking person who is hardworking and brave can make groundbreaking scientific discoveries.”

The president stressed that three of the 10 Israeli Nobel Prize winners are graduates of the Technion, and that this is a badge of honor for the Technion and for higher education in Israel.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu thanked Shechtman in the name of all Israeli citizens, saying that the win “reflects the intellect of our people. Every citizen in Israel is happy today and every Jew in the world is proud.”

Science and Technology Minister Prof. Daniel Herschkowitz, who knows Shechtman well from their work together at the Technion, also congratulated him on Wednesday. So did Israel Academy of Sciences president Prof. Ruth Arnon and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

Sa’ar called Shechtman’s achievements “a source of great pride for the higher education system and the entire State of Israel.” Sa’ar told the Technion scientist that “the future of the State of Israel will be ensured by research on the highest level.”

Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.

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