How to Win a Nobel Prize

Dan Shechtman had numerous opportunities to make a stellar career in America, but he chose to return home to Technion.

Dan Shechtman 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Dan Shechtman 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On October 5, I frightened the daylights out of Miriam, with whom I share an office at the S. Neaman Institute at the Technion in Haifa. Shortly after noon, I opened my emails and read the subject line of one of them: “Technion Materials Engineering Professor Dan Shechtman awarded Nobel Prize for Chemistry.” I screamed “yes,” leaped out of my chair, spilling my coffee, and then explained to Miriam that Danny had been a friend and colleague for over 25 years and that the tale of how he won his Nobel was worthy of a Hollywood feature film.
Shechtman is the tenth Israeli to win a Nobel Prize, the fifth Israeli to win since 2002 and the third Technion scientist. He has been shortlisted for perhaps 20 years.
So, how do you win a Nobel Prize? Here is how Shechtman did it.
1. Read Jules Verne and dream. “Frightful indeed was the situation of these unfortunate men. They were evidently no longer masters of the machine… The case of the balloon collapsed more and more. The gas escaped without any possibility of retaining it. Their descent was visibly accelerated…” This passage is from the first chapter of Verne’s novel “The Mysterious Island,” which Shechtman says he read 25 times as a child. The book is about how an engineer turns a desert island into a lush garden. “I wanted to be exactly that: someone who makes everything from nothing,” he says.
To win a Nobel Prize in physics, medicine or chemistry, you need to study science or engineering. And to choose those disciplines, you need inspiration. How can we inspire our youth to choose science, rather than business or law? This is far more important than higher education budgets.
2. Believe in yourself. On April 8, 1982, Shechtman was peering into an electronic microscope at the labs of the US National Bureau of Standards, during a sabbatical from the Technion at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. His mission was to find lightweight alloys for aircraft. Shechtman was looking at an alloy of aluminum and manganese that had been rapidly cooled and crystallized. “Ein chaya kazo!” he exclaimed! (There can be no such creature!) What he saw was an arrangement of atoms that defied the known laws of nature. Everyone knew that atoms in a crystal are arranged with perfect symmetry.
What Shechtman saw was an arrangement of 10 dots, indicating “fivefold symmetry” – an arrangement in which the distances between some atoms are shorter than between others. (To understand why, try to tile your bathroom floor with five-sided tiles, without leaving spaces between the tiles. It cannot be done.) He ran into the corridor to find someone to tell. But the corridor was empty. So he wrote in his lab diary, “10 fold???” meaning 10 ten dots, in a circular pattern. Impossible. After checking, and rechecking, Shechtman wrote up his results.
His research team leader fired him from the team, after showing him a passage in a basic textbook and asking him to reread it. His research paper was rejected for publication. He was vilified before a large audience by Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, at a gathering Shechtman himself attended. He was called a “quasi-scientist,” playing on the “quasi-crystal” matter he discovered.
But he never gave up. In the end, other scientists replicated and verified his findings and a new definition of “crystal” was adopted. Shechtman has a favorite picture of a line of a dozen German Shepherds. In front of them, with perfect aplomb, walks a serene cat. “I felt like that cat,” he recounted to Dov Elboim, an Israeli TV interviewer. But he never yielded an inch from what he believed was scientific truth.
3. Believe in Israel. Shechtman had numerous opportunities to make a stellar career in America, but he chose to return home to Technion, where he got all three of his academic degrees. His grandparents came to Palestine as part of the Second Aliya, around 1910.
In the media blitz that followed the Nobel announcement, no journalist mentioned that Shechtman is a serial entrepreneur. Until I retired, I co-chaired a popular Technion course with Shechtman, “Technological Entrepreneurship,” which he initiated, attended each autumn by several hundred students. The idea was simple – inspire Technion undergrads to launch businesses by bringing successful Israeli entrepreneurs to tell their stories. And indeed, students who took the course went on to launch businesses. Shechtman himself has been involved with start-ups that made knives and kitchen utensils out of “Shechtmanite” (the quasi-crystalline material he discovered, which has special properties).
4. Challenge everything. Israeli students and managers, even very young ones, never hesitate to tell me how wrong I am, despite my 44 years of teaching and researching management. And I absolutely cherish the ensuing debate! This chutzpa is an integral part of Israeli culture. I find much less of it in other countries. Though Shechtman is impeccably polite and soft-spoken, chutzpa is in part what drove him to challenge what every materials scientist knew as gospel truth. In international diplomacy, Israeli stubbornness is castigated; in science, it wins Nobels. In global politics, Israeli chutzpa is condemned as arrogance; in science, it smashes icons.
Following the Nobel announcement, Shechtman told an Israel Radio interviewer that the past decade has been humiliating for Israeli scientists, because massive budget cuts told them they were unimportant – a perverse message for a nation that lives on its brainpower. Some of those cuts have been reversed. I think Shechtman’s story of perseverance and courage will inspire a new generation of Israeli scientists, provided we give them the tools and resources they need to change the world and how it thinks. 

The writer is senior research fellow, S. Neaman Institute, Technion.