|How to Win a Nobel Prize
Opinion by Shlomo Maital
On Wednesday October 5, shortly after noon, I opened my emails and read: “Technion Materials Engineering Professor Dan Shechtman awarded Nobel Prize for Chemistry.” I yelled, leaped out of my chair, spilling my coffee, and screamed “yes!”… Danny has been a friend and colleague for over 25 years and the tale of how he won his Nobel is worthy of a Hollywood feature film.
Shechtman is the 10th Israeli - and the third Technion scientist - to win a Nobel Prize. In each of the last three years, three scientists have shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. This year, Shechtman is the sole winner.
So, how do you win a Nobel Prize? Here is how Danny did it. The recipe has, I think, some valuable lessons for Israel’s science and technology policy, and perhaps that of other nations.
- Read Jules Verne and dream
Shechtman says he read Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island 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. One of Shechtman’s projects was to initiate a Hebrew translation of the popular science magazine Scientific American, now distributed widely to Israeli schools, with the goal of attracting young minds to study science.
- Believe in yourself
On April 8, 1982, Shechtman was peering into an electronic microscope at the labs of the National Bureau of Standards, during a sabbatical from Technion. 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.
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. He saw an arrangement of 10 dots, indicating “five-fold 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 spacesbetween 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???” with three question marks. Impossible. After checking, and rechecking, Shechtman wrote up his results. His research team leader fired him from the team; his research paper was rejected for publication. He was vilified before a large audience by Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling. 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.
- Believe in Israel
Shechtman had numerous opportunities to make a stellar career in America, but he chose to return home to Technion, where he did all three of his academic degrees. “I’m a Zionist,” he says simply.
Until I retired, I co-chaired a popular Technion course with Shechtman, Technological Entrepreneurship, which he initiated, attended each Fall by several hundred students. The idea was simple - inspire Technion undergrads to launch businesses by bringing successful Israeli entrepreneurs to tell their stories. “No theories!” we counseled. “Just tell the students how you did it.” And indeed, many students who took the course went on to launch businesses.
- 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. This chutzpah is an integral part of Israeli culture. I find much less of it in other countries. Though Shechtman is impeccably polite and softspoken, chutzpah is in part what drove him to challenge what every materials scientist knew as Gospel truth, and stick to his guns. In international diplomacy, Israeli stubbornness is castigated; in science, it wins Nobels. In global politics, Israeli chutzpah is condemned as arrogance; in science, it smashes icons.
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.
Prof. Emeritus Shlomo Maital is a senior research fellow at Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Research, Technion. This article is abridged from Maital’s Marketplace column, Jerusalem Report, October 2011.