Israeli Dan Shechtman Wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Technion-Israel Institute of Technology scientist awarded prize for a discovery in crystallography that was met with skepticism for many years before it won acceptance as a fundamental breakthrough.

Prof. Dan Shechtman, a scientist at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry Wednesday, for a discovery in crystallography that was met with skepticism for many years before it won acceptance as a fundamental breakthrough.

He will receive the prize at a December 10 ceremony in Stockholm.

Dan Shechtman, Nobel Chemistry - Reuters - 5.10.11

While conducting research in the United States in 1982, Shechtman discovered a new chemical structure - quasicrystals - that researchers previously considered impossible.

In chemical terms, a crystal is traditionally defined as a regular and repeating arrangement of atoms within a material. As a result of these repeats, traditional crystals can have only certain shapes.

What Shechtman found was a material that seemed to have a forbidden shape. It would take years for him and other researchers to prove that he was right.

Eventually, scientists realized it was a new kind of matter, a quasicrystal, in which the atomic patterns show a more subtle kind of repetition that allows forbidden shapes.

"His battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter," the Royal Swedish Academy of Scientists said.

Shechtman, 70, and a father of four, is the 10th Israeli to win a Nobel Prize, and the sixth winner in the past decade.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated him for his award, saying "every Israeli citizen is happy today, and every Jew in the world is proud."

Shechtman told Haaretz that he was not expecting to win.

"I was totally shocked. Many years have passed, and it hadn't happened," he said, noting that in theory, his work could also have been awarded the prize for physics. "Yesterday people were expressing sympathy for the fact that I hadn't gotten the physics prize. I didn't even know they were announcing the chemistry prize today," he said.

"When I accept the prize in December, there will be thousands of scientists at my side who have worked and are working in this field," he said.

It wasn't until 1984 that Shechtman succeeded, with the help of other scientists, in publishing a paper describing his findings, which caused an uproar in the scientific world.

Double Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling was among those who never accepted the findings, often attacking Shechtman publicly.

"He would stand on the stage at scientific conferences and say, 'Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There are no such things as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.'

"[Pauling] really was a great scientist, but he was wrong. It's not the first time he was wrong," Shechtman told reporters yesterday.

In 1987, friends of Shechtman in France and Japan succeeded in growing crystals large enough for x-rays to repeat and verify what he had discovered with the electron microscope.

"The moment I presented that the community said, 'OK Danny, now you are talking. Now we understand you, now we accept what you have found,'" Shechtman said yesterday.