The Man Who Proved the Impossible Was Possible

Nobel winner Daniel Shechtman's discovery of quasicrystals was dismissed and ridiculed.

Technion Prof. Daniel Shechtman's winning the Nobel Prize yesterday caps off a dramatic story of a scientist who nearly 30 years ago stubbornly fought the skepticism of the scientific community, until he managed to convince them all that his findings were valid.

Shechtman, 70, was born in Tel Aviv and grew up in Ramat Gan and Petah Tikva. He was a voracious reader of Jules Verne - he read "The Mysterious Island" 25 times as a child - and credits the author with his pursuit of a scientific-technical career.

Nobel Prize-winner Dan Shechtman
Hagai Frid

After earning his degrees at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, he did post-doctoral work with the U.S. Air Force, after which he was offered "an amazing position," he said.

"I was married with three daughters," he recalled, in an interview he gave to Haaretz in March. "We sat and made a list of why it paid to stay in the States, and why we should go back to Israel. One list was a meter long, and the other around a centimeter."

But on the day he was supposed to sign his new contract, he got a message from the Technion offering him a position if he wanted it.

"I went up to my boss and told him that I'm going back to Israel," said Shechtman. "He was Jewish and understood."

His path to the Nobel, however, actually started when he was again in the United States, working at the National Bureau of Standards and Technology in Washington during a sabbatical leave.

It was on April 8, 1982 that Shechtman first observed crystals with a pentagonal (five-sided ) shape most scientists considered impossible.

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

Nancy B. Jackson, president of the American Chemical Society, called Shechtman's discovery, "One of those great scientific discoveries that go against the rules.

"People didn't think that this kind of crystal existed. They thought it was against nature," she said.

Only later did some scientists go back to some of their own inexplicable findings and realized that they had seen quasicrystals but had not understood what they were seeing, Jackson said.

Since then, quasicrystals have been produced in laboratories and a Swedish company found them in one of the most durable kinds of steel, which is now used in products such as razor blades and thin needles made specifically for eye surgery.

At a press conference at the Technion yesterday, Shechtman thanked Prof. Ilan Blech, who was one of the first researchers to support him and who co-signed the first paper he published in the field.

He also thanked John Cahn, who had worked with him when he made the discovery at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards and Technology and supported him, even though the institution refused to accept the validity of his findings.

Shechtman's brother-in-law, Dr. Yossi Rein, noted that the Technion hadn't always been very supportive either.

"The Technion thought his work with the crystals was just a hobby," Rein said. "They made him crazy there; they thought he was wasting time. The Technion is a very conservative institution. Their reaction was that there is no such thing."

Shechtman is married to Tzipi, a psychology professor at the University of Haifa, who confessed yesterday that she always had a bit of a problem trying to explain exactly what his research was about.

She and other family members were listening avidly to the media reports yesterday that were explaining the significance of his work.

"Maybe now I'll finally understand what it is he discovered," she said.