Israel’s Shechtman vindicated with Nobel for chemistry


Israel’s Daniel Shechtman, who on Wednesday won the Nobel Chemistry Prize, endured years of ridicule before his discovery of quasicrystals was taken seriously by the scientific establishment.

A professor at Israel's prestigious Technion Institute of Technology in the northern port city of Haifa, the 70-year-old on Wednesday became the 10th Israeli to win a Nobel Prize and the fourth to win the prestigious award for chemistry.

His research, which was described as “extremely controversial,” was found to have “fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter,” the jury said.

“This is really a great day for me personally... and truly a great day for science,” Shechtman said at a press conference shortly after the announcement.

“There are currently thousands of scientists who are researching the topic I opened, and I'm sure that everyone sees in the prize their achievement as well, and they deserve to, because if it weren't for these thousands of scientists, this science would not be where it is today.”

“The science wouldn’t be here and wouldn’t be as prosperous and complicated and intricate as it is, if not for the work of thousands of scientists around the world,” he said.

Shechtman’s discovery dates back to April 1982 when he noticed an unusual quality in a new crystal of aluminum and manganese he had produced in his laboratory at John Hopkins University where he was on sabbatical.

As he examined it through an electron microscope, he saw it appeared to have pentagonal symmetry -- which until that point had been ruled out as impossibility among crystallographers.

Atoms in crystalline solids, such as metals, rocks or ceramic materials, had always been arranged in periodic order but what he was looking at clearly did not have a periodic structure.

Shechtman’s discovery of what later became known as quasiperiodic crystals, sparked immediate ridicule, he told the Haaretz daily in an interview in April.

“I told everyone who was ready to listen that I had material with pentagonal symmetry. People just laughed at me,” he said.

For months, he struggled with the unbridled skepticism of his peers, and was eventually asked to leave his research group for “bringing disgrace” on its members, he told the paper.

A year later, Shechtman returned to the Technion at the end of his sabbatical to continue his research in conjunction with Professor Ilan Blech, an expert in material sciences, Haaretz said.

In November 1984, the two managed to publish an article on the discovery, in conjunction with US scientist John Cahn and French crystallographer Denis Gratias, in which Shechtman described exactly how to prepare the material in a bid to convince his critics.

Although the article generated great interest, it failed to win over key scientists.

Among his biggest critics was the renowned US chemist Linus Pauling, who once declared at a conference: “Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists,” the Nobel laureate recalled.

The tide began to turn in his favor in 1987 when scientists in France and Japan developed quasiperiodic crystals which were big enough to be examined by x-ray as well as by electron microscopes, thereby offering further proof of the pentagonal symmetry.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1941, Shechtman grew up in the nearby suburbs of Ramat Gan and Petah Tikva, with his passion for science sparked by reading Jules Verne's "The Mysterious Island" (1874).

He got his first degree from the Technion in 1966, after which he did a masters in materials engineering, then went on to obtain his doctorate in 1972.

He has received numerous prestigious awards for his work in both physics and chemistry, including the Israel Prize in Physics in 1998, the Wolf Physics Prize in 1999 and the 2002 EMET Prize for Chemistry.

“I am moved,” he told Israeli public radio in a brief first reaction to the award.