Nobel Prizes present lessons for all Israelis

The 2004 and 2011 Nobel prizes teach us not to dismiss unexpected results may lead to the holy grail of scientific research.

Nobel Prize Laureate Dan Shechtman 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Nobel Prize Laureate Dan Shechtman 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
The telephone call from the secretary of the Nobel Prize Committee in Stockholm to Dr. Dan Shechtman, a distinguished professor in the Technion’s Material Engineering Department, was one of those once-in-a-life-time rare events that scientists can only dream about. Annually, no more than a handful of scientists are awarded with what has become the icon of ultimate excellence in the sciences – the Nobel Prize. Seven years ago our distingished professors Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover received the same call when they were awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Winning two Nobel Prizes within a span of less than a decade is the dream of every university, and of every university president. Of course, a Nobel Prize is first and foremost a personal achievement, but we take particular pride in the fact that the 2004 and 2011 Nobel laureates were not only Technion faculty members. All three scientists “grew up” at the Technion - all have spent their entire academic careers at our university, and their success is a badge of honor to the university community.
Since Prof. Shechtman's prize was announced last week I have been asked over and over again by journalists, politicians and colleagues: "What is the Technion's secret? How does a university produce multiple Nobel Prize winners? What are the prospects for more "blue and white” Nobel laureates in the future? And why are the three Nobel Prizes in Chemistry?" It is interesting to note that although our professors won their awards in the discipline of chemistry, none of the Technion recipients are chemists. Professors Hershko and Ciechanover are biochemists whose research focused on the mechanisms responsible for protein degradation, while Professor Shechtman is a materials engineer who researched the atomic structure of crystals. Both discoveries touched upon the basic structure of natural phenomena and were awarded the prize in chemistry, which is defined as the science of matter, especially its structure and properties.
No one would have been surprised if Professors Hershko and Ciechanover had won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, and many were surprised that Prof. Shechtman did not win the Prize in Physics.
Thus, the question of "why chemistry" is dependent on decisions made by the Nobel Prize committees that sometimes may seem arbitrary.
What can we learn from the 2004 and 2011 Nobel Prizes regarding future laureates? Although it is very difficult to compare scientific achievements across fields of science which widely differ from each other just like the fields of crystallography and protein degradation, there are some interesting similarities between the discovery of quasi-periodic crystals and the mechanisms of protein degradation. Both discoveries were made in the early 80s. Shechtman peeked through the microscope and saw the pattern of dots of the unusual crystal in 1982, and Ciechanover submitted his doctoral dissertation on protein degradation written under Professor Hershko's tutelage in 1981.
Thus, in both cases there was a substantial lag between the time the discoveries were actually made and the acknowledgment of their great importance by the Nobel Committee. The starting points of both the quasi-periodic crystals story and protein degradation were unexpected findings that triggered the scientists’ curiosity. Prof. Hershko investigated protein degradation and found -to his surprise- that the process required energy, at a time when the prevailing paradigm was that such structures were energy independent. Prof. Shechtman's starting point was his unexpected observation of the crystal structure disobeying the existing paradigm of how crystals should be structured.
Both cases illustrate the need for scientific intuition combined with a strong sense of curiosity and thinking "outside the box" in order not to dismiss such unexpected findings as “mistakes,” and to pursue them with vigor and enthusiasm. Hershko and Ciechanover decided to focus on protein degradation at a time when almost everybody else in their scientific field investigated protein synthesis.
Shechtman was convinced that the unusual mosaic of dots he saw under the microscope was not an artifact or an illusion, but rather something novel which challenged everything that was ever written before on atomic structure of materials. In both cases there was a need not only for thinking "outside the box" but also for having the ‘chutzpah’ and tenacity to stand against the zeitgeist of the time.
Interestingly, neither discovery relied on very expensive equipment or on herds of graduate students or post docs that are typical of leading laboratories competing for major prizes in science in our times. Hershko and Ciechanover conducted their research in an old monastery building that can still be found next to the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, the first home of the Technion Faculty of Medicine. I still remember the tiny rooms and heavy walls of the building which was barely equipped with scientific equipment. The equipment Prof. Shechtman used to make his the seminal discovery was an electron microscope that replaced X-ray crystallography which has been commercially available since 1939.
Is there any lesson from the career and path taken by the three Nobel laureates regarding potential future Nobel laureates? Louis Pasteur said that “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” If there is one important lesson that can be learnt from the 2004 and 2011 Technion Nobel prizes it is not to dismiss off-hand unexpected experimental results. Such results may be the gate to new paradigm shift discoveries that may eventually lead to the holy grail of scientific research – the Nobel Prize.
The writer is the president of the Technion