The Nobel Legacy

Biography. It matters.

A look at the life and spirit of the scientist who broke the rules of crystallography, and stood up for it.
“The main character in the book (The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne) is an engineer. His name was Cyrus Smith and he could do anything. He could do everything. And I wanted to be like him. Being an engineer was the dream of my life.”

Frightful indeed was the situation of these unfortunate men. They were evidently no longer masters of the machine. All their attempts were useless. The case of the balloon collapsed more and more. The gas escaped without any possibility of retaining it. Their descent was visibly accelerated, and soon after midday the car hung within 600 feet of the ocean.

“Breaking the symmetry laws that we as crystallographers are educated on was difficult to accept... though he is such a nice man that I would work with him even if I disagreed with him.”

Prof. Ada Yonath, 2009 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
Weizmann Institute of Science

This passage is about how an engineer turns an uninhabited island into a lush garden.
“I wanted to be exactly that: someone who makes everything from nothing,” says Shechtman.

The Shechtman drive to be part of a young institute of technology that would shape and protect a new-born nation, makes his childhood attraction to The Mysterious Island understandable.

“My mother was called Natania Ashur. Her father was Zeev Ashur and her mother was Shoshana. They came to Israel 105 years ago from Ukraine,” tells Shechtman. “Shoshana came here to study at Bezalel School of Arts - she came with her parents. Zeev Ashur was a pioneer and a socialist.”
Dan Shechtman was born in Tel Aviv on January 24, 1941. His dream, when he was still in high school, was to study at the Technion. “In 1962, I commenced my studies in Mechanical Engineering at Technion. I graduated in 1966. There was a recession and no work, so I opted to continue for a master’s degree. After my master’s I was offered an excellent post as the chief engineer in a defense-related industry, but I had already fallen in love with science. On the eve of starting the job, I notified them I wasn’t able to start, and began doctoral studies instead.”

“It took an enormous amount of courage for Danny to stick to his claim.”

Prof. Veit Elser, Cornell University

Shechtman always loved the microscope. Indeed, at his grade school, he was the first to show an interest in it. He says he fell in love with the electron microscope at Technion and perfected methods for using it. It was with the electron microscope in 1982 (as opposed to X-ray) that Dan Shechtman first noticed the 5-point symmetry - the Icosahedral Phase. It is the first structure in the field of quasiperiodic crystals, and was discovered in aluminum transition metal alloys. For a while, the discovery made him one of the most unpopular scientists in crystallography.

Shechtman was made Distinguished Professor in 1998. He holds the Philip Tobias Chair in Material Sciences, and heads the Louis Edelstein Center for Quasicrystals and the Wolfson Centre for Interface Science in the Department of Materials Engineering.

He instigated the Technion course in Technological Entrepreneurship in 1986, referring to it as “my baby,” and has overseen it annually ever since. Shechtman is invited to lecture worldwide about the Technological Entrepreneurship course, arousing much interest. He considers himself a missionary, “I coordinate the course with pleasure. I do it for Israel.”

Between 2001 and 2004, Shechtman served as chair of the sciences division of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Now as a member, he continues to oversee the translation of the Nobel Prize scientific posters into Hebrew, and their annual distribution to schools throughout the country.
Shechtman has a favorite picture of a line of a dozen German Shepherds. In front of them, with self-assured insouciance, walks a serene cat.
“I felt like that cat,” he recounts. But his loyalty to his discovery never wavered. “A good scientist needs faith,” he told reporters recently, “Every scientist who wants to make a definitive contribution to humanity has to know when he’s right and to stand his ground.”

This year, Shechtman celebrates his 47th wedding anniversary with his wife Tsipi. He lives in Haifa, has four children and nine grandchildren.

Saturday 10 December: Distinguished Prof. Dan Shechtman will receive his Nobel Prize in Chemistry from His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, on Saturday 10 December. The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony is broadcast live from the Stockholm Concert Hall, at 4:30 p.m. CET.