Israel’s 10th Nobel laureate awarded in Stockholm

Technion’s Dan Shechtman is honored for his discovery of quasicrystal patterns of atoms.

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December 10, 2011 20:33
Prof. Dan Shechtman receiving the Nobel Prize

Prof. Dan Shechtman receiving the Nobel Prize 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Ints Kalnins)

 
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Receiving Israel’s 10th Nobel Prize on Saturday night for his discovery of quasicrystal patterns of atoms, Technion- Institute of Technology Prof. Dan Shechtman noted that “science is the ultimate tool to reveal the laws of nature, and the one word written on its banner is “truth.”

“The laws of nature are neither good nor bad. It is the way in which we apply them to our world that makes the difference,” he said.

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Representing all the laureates at a royal ball after receiving a gold medal from Swedish King Carl XVU Gustaf, the 70-year-old chemistry professor said it is a scientist’s duty to promote education, rational thinking and tolerance.

“We should also encourage our educated youth to become technological entrepreneurs,” Shechtman said at the glittering event. “Those countries that nurture this know-how will survive future financial and social crises. Let us advance science to create a better world for all.”

The Technion professor recalled the chronology and significance of his discovery starting on April 8, 1982, when, alone in the electron microscope room, he discovered the Icosahedral Phase that opened the field of quasiperiodic crystals. Today, he said, he is joined by many hundreds of enthusiastic scientists worldwide.

“I stand here as the vanguard of the science of quasicrystals, but without these dedicated scientists the field would not be where it is today. This supreme recognition of the science we have unveiled over the last quarter century is celebrated by us all,” he said.

The discovery and the ensuing progress in the field resulted in “a paradigm shift in the science of crystallography,” continued Shechtman.

“A new definition of crystal emerged, one that is beautiful and humble and open to further discoveries. A humble scientist is a good scientist.”

His realization that atoms in rigid crystals can be packed together in unusual ways led to the development of extremely strong materials.

He thus changed the way chemists look at solid matter, and his discovery has many practical applications: from metal surgical tools and razor blades to diesel engines and as protective coatings and metal alloys.

Quasiperiodic, or quasicrystals, do not rust or become oxidized and have almost no surface friction, Shechtman said.

Recognition of the discovery of quasi-periodic crystals is timely, he noted, as 2011 was UNESCO’s International Year of Chemistry, celebrating the field worldwide, 2012 is the centennial of Max von Laue’s experiment which launched the field of modern crystallography, and 2013 will mark the International Year of Crystallography.

Shechtman delivered his speech from a written text – the only one during Nobel Prize week in which he was not spontaneous. The dozens of lectures, press conferences and interviews were all given off the cuff, without notes.

Previous Israeli Nobel laureates were Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Prof. Daniel Kahneman, Prof. Avram Hershko, Prof. Aaron Ciechanover, Prof. Robert J. Aumann and Prof. Ada Yonath. Kahneman and Hershko are also researchers at the Technion in Haifa.

Along with the medal, Shechtman also received a prize of $1.5 million and unlike other laureates, was the single winner in his field. He is in Sweden with his wife, Tzipi, four children, four of his nine grandchildren, his brother and niece. He is also being escorted by Technion president Prof. Peretz Lavie and Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz.

On Saturday morning, Shechtman and the other laureates took part in a general rehearsal ahead of the ceremony.

Although characteristically a very reserved man, Shechtman was excited when hearing a song that had been written by an Israeli journalist in his honor.

On Saturday night, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu congratulated Shechtman on becoming the 10th Israeli to be awarded the Nobel Prize.

“I am so proud of my country’s only true natural resource – its people,” Netanyahu said through a spokesman.

On Shabbat, hours before the festive ceremony, Shechtman received wishes for continued success from hundreds of members of the Stockholm Jewish community who met him at the city’s Great Synagogue.

The Tel Aviv-born scientist, who is also an associate of the US Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and 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.

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

Shechtman was on sabbatical almost three decades ago at the US National Bureau of Standards in Washington when he discovered the icosahedral phase. 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 upon earning his PhD.

In 1975, during his sabbatical in the early ’80s at Johns Hopkins University, 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’s article was rejected by the Journal of Applied Physics which claimed that his discovery “would not interest physicists.”

He subsequently sent it to Metallurgical Transactions, which accepted his paper, but its editors said it would take a year to publish. He refused to wait, and instead, wrote a more abbreviated article to Physical Review Letters, along with three colleagues, that was published within a few weeks and aroused much interest and controversy among physicists, and later 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 previously 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.

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