How to Win a Nobel Prize
On Wednesday Oct. 5, I frightened the daylights out of Miriam, with whom I share an office at the S. Neaman Institute. Shortly after noon, I opened my emails and read the subject line of one of them: “Technion Materials Engineering Professor Dan Shechtman awarded Nobel Prize for Chemistry”. I yelled, leaped out of my chair, spilling my coffee, and screamed “yes!”… and then explained to Miriam that Danny had been a friend and colleague for over 25 years and that the tale of how he won his Nobel was worthy of a Hollywood feature film.
Shechtman is the tenth Israeli to win a Nobel prize, the fifth Israeli to win one since 2002 and the third Technion scientist. He has been short-listed for perhaps 20 years. It is rather rare that a single scientist gets an unshared Nobel. 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.
1. Read Jules Verne and dream. “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.” This passage is from the first chapter of Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island, which Shechtman says he read 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. Perhaps the story of what Shechtman saw in his microscope will help.
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.
2. 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 at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. 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. “Eyn chaya kazoo!” he exclaimed! There can be no such creature! 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. What Shechtman saw was 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 spaces between 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, after showing him a passage in a basic textbook and asking him to reread it. His research paper was rejected for publication. He was vilified before a large audience by Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, at a gathering Shechtman himself attended. 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. Shechtman has a favorite picture of a line of a dozen German Shepherds. In front of them, with perfect aplomb, walks a serene cat. “I felt like that cat,” he recounts. But he never yielded an inch from what he believed was scientific truth. “A good scientist needs faith,” he told the daily Haaretz. “I believed in something and it was hard to break my spirit, despite all the hardships and criticism. Every scientist who wants to make a definitive contribution to humanity has to know that he’s right and stand his ground.” As a Technion undergrad, Shechtman supported himself by odd jobs. During the 1965-66 recession he worked as an official in charge of road signs. But as a scientist, he ignored the many red-light stop signs other scientists showed him.
3. 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. His grandparents came to Palestine as part of the Second Aliyah, around 1910.
In the media blitz that followed the Nobel announcement, no journalist mentioned that Danny is a serial entrepreneur. 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, students who took the course went on to launch businesses. Shechtman himself has been involved with startups that made knives and kitchen utensils out of “Shechtmanite” (the quasi-crystalline material he discovered, which has special properties), and he is now working on a startup to make durable artificial joints out of magnesium alloys.
4. 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. And I absolutely love and cherish the ensuing debate! This hutzpa is an integral part of Israeli culture. I find much less of it in other countries. Though Shechtman is impeccably polite and soft-spoken, hutzpa 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 hutzpah is condemned as arrogance; in science, it smashes icons.
Shechtman told a Reshet Bet radio interviewer that the past decade has been humiliating for Israeli scientists, because massive budget cuts told them they were unimportant – a perverse message for a nation that lives on its brainpower. Some of those cuts have been restored. 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.
* Senior research fellow, S. Neaman Institute, Technion.
* Senior research fellow, S. Neaman Institute, Technion.