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
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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
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.
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
Pauling, until his death in 1994, was the only one who
stubbornly refused to recognize the Technion scientist’s discovery.
hearing the announcement, Shechtman was forthcoming in sharing the
“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
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
“I don’t envy any celebrity,” he joked.
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
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
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.
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
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
President Shimon Peres called Shechtman to congratulate
“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.”
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
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.
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.