One Israeli’s path from being mocked to winning a Nobel

October 06, 2011

2011 Nobel Laureate Prof. Daniel Shechtman of the Technion Institute of Technology


This dispatch has also appeared as a comment piece in The National Post, Canada’s largest nationwide paper, and picked up elsewhere, for example here.



[Note by Tom Gross]

Israel, as is well known, is regularly treated with disdain by many reporters and columnists in the international media. Yet this small state continues to make astonishing contributions to the worlds of art, literature, and particularly to classical music, medicine and science.

Yesterday, yet another Israeli won a Nobel Prize, when Daniel Shechtman of Israel’s Technion institute in Haifa, was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize for chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals.

Below, I attach a report from Reuters titled “Ridiculed crystal work wins Nobel for Israeli”.

(For those interested in science, here is a full explanation of the prize from the Nobel committee.)

Another Israeli, Ada Yonath, won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Two Israelis, Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover, won the 2004 Nobel Prize for Chemistry (which they shared with Californian-Jewish scientist Irwin Rose). In the past, Israelis have also won nobel prizes for economics, literature and peace.


American and Canadian Jews with relatives in Israel also won yesterday’s Nobel prizes for Physics, and for Physiology or Medicine.

Saul Perlmutter, whose grandfather was the renowned Yiddish teacher and scholar Samuel Davidson, won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics with Adam Riess, who grew up in a Jewish family in New Jersey.

And Ralph Steinman, a Canadian immunologist and cell biologist at Rockefeller University in New York, won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for “his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity”. Unfortunately, Steinman died on September 30, three days before the announcement was made.

Many international media, determined to paint Israel in a negative light, regularly downplay the extraordinary impact Israelis and Israeli companies continue to make to a whole range of medical, scientific and technological advances, for example, to the development of Microsoft and Apple computers and other products. Noting the contribution, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer remarked in 2008 that “Microsoft is now an Israeli company almost as much as it is American.”

Very occasionally, international media do report on some of the innovative ideas and products coming out of Israel. For example, Britain’s Channel 4 ran these video reports earlier this year.

In spite of (or perhaps because they are jealous of) Israeli scientific advances, many anti-Israeli activists in Western countries continue to call for a boycott of Israeli academia.



Meanwhile, Israel slammed yesterday’s vote by UNESCO, the UN’s culture, science and education organization, to recognize Palestine as a separate state without the need for the Palestinians to first agree to make peace with Israel.

In a statement, the Israeli foreign ministry noted that “UNESCO has remained silent in the face of significant change across the Middle East in recent months yet has found time during its current meeting to adopt six decisions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The decision to grant the Palestinians membership of UNESCO will not advance their desire for an independent state. Only negotiations between the parties will bring peace.”

Other commentators said it was a sad day for UNESCO, which had allowed itself to be turned into a political football.

Israel thanked the four countries that opposed the decision, the United States, Germany, Latvia and Romania. 14 other countries abstained. The 40 other members of the UNESCO board voted to admit Palestine.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday that UNESCO should “think again” on plans for Palestinian membership in the absence of their making peace with Israel.

Clinton, speaking to reporters in the Dominican Republic where she was on an official visit, said she found it “inexplicable” that UNESCO would consider moving ahead on a Palestinian vote while the issue was still before the United Nations Security Council.

“Unfortunately there are those who, in their enthusiasm to recognize the aspirations of the Palestinian people, are skipping over the most important step which is determining what the state will look like, what its borders are, how it will deal with the myriad issues that states must address,” Clinton said.

Clinton noted that the United States, which pays 22 percent of UNESCO’s dues, might be required by law to cut off funding for the agency if it were to accept the Palestinians as a member.



An Iraqi-British reader of this website points out that Steve Jobs, the great pioneer at Apple who died last night, was Syrian.

The biological father of Jobs, who was born in San Francisco and adopted by an Armenian-American family, was indeed a Syrian Muslim immigrant to the U.S from Homs called Abdulfattah John Jandali. (Jobs’ biological mother was of German ancestry.)

However, the point I was really making in this dispatch is about culture and political systems rather than about ethnicity. No doubt there would be many Arab Nobel scientists and economists if political reform in the Arab world succeeds and societies like Syria’s become more open.

-- Tom Gross


Ridiculed crystal work wins Nobel for Israeli
By Patrick Lannin and Veronica Ek
Oct 5, 2011 4:45pm EDT

STOCKHOLM, Oct 5 (Reuters) - An Israeli scientist who suffered years of ridicule and even lost a research post for claiming to have found an entirely new class of solid material was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry on Wednesday for his discovery of quasicrystals.

Three decades after Daniel Shechtman looked with an electron microscope at a metal alloy and saw a pattern familiar in Islamic art but then unknown at a molecular level, those non-stick, rust-free, heat-resistant quasicrystals are finding their way into tools from LEDs to engines and frying pans.

Shechtman, 70, from Israel’s Technion institute in Haifa, was working in the United States in 1982 when he observed atoms in a crystal he had made form a five-sided pattern that did not repeat itself, defying received wisdom that they must create repetitious patterns, like triangles, squares or hexagons.

“People just laughed at me,” Shechtman recalled in an interview this year with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noting how Linus Pauling, a colossus of science and double Nobel laureate, mounted a frightening “crusade” against him, saying: “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”

After telling Shechtman to go back and read the textbook, the head of his research group asked him to leave for “bringing disgrace” on the team. “I felt rejected,” Shechtman remembered.

“His discovery was extremely controversial,” said the Nobel Committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which granted him the 10-million crown ($1.5-million) award.

“Daniel Shechtman had to fight a fierce battle against established science ... His battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter.

“In quasicrystals, we find the fascinating mosaics of the Arabic world reproduced at the level of atoms: regular patterns that never repeat themselves.”


On Wednesday, Shechtman said he was “excited” but at pains to praise fellow scientists, many of whom once doubted him.

Nancy Jackson, the president of the American Chemical Society (ACS), called it “a great work of discovery”.

Scientists had previously thought solid matter had only two states -- crystalline, like diamonds, where atoms are arranged in rigid rows, and amorphous, like metals, with no particular order. Quasicrystalline matter offers a third possibility and opens the door to new kinds of materials for use in industry.

Sometimes referred to as Shechtmanite in the discoverer’s honour, hundreds of quasicrystals have been synthesised in laboratories. Two years ago, scientists reported the first naturally occurring find of quasicrystals in eastern Russia.

David Phillips, president of Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry, called them “quite beautiful”. Interlocking arrays of stars, circles and floral shapes are typical.

“You can normally explain in simple terms where in a crystal each atom sits - they are very symmetrical,” Phillips said. “With quasicrystals, that symmetry is broken: there are regular patterns in the structure, but never repeating.”

An intriguing feature of such patterns, also found in Arab mosaics, is that the mathematical constant known as the Greek letter tau, or the “golden ratio”, occurs over and over again. Underlying it is a sequence worked out by Fibonacci in the 13th century, where each number is the sum of the preceding two.

Living things, including flowers, fruit and shellfish, also demonstrate similar arrangements, which scientists associate with the efficient packing of materials into growing organisms.

Quasicrystals are very hard and are poor conductors of heat and electricity, offering uses as thermoelectric materials, which convert heat into electricity. They also have non-stick surfaces, handy for frying pans, and appear in energy-saving light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and heat insulation in engines.

Astrid Graslund, secretary for the Nobel Committee for chemistry, said: “The practical applications are as of now, not so many. But the material has unexpected properties. It is very strong, it has hardly any friction on the surface. It doesn’t want to react with anything -- they cannot ... become rusty.

“But it is more a conceptual insight - that these materials exist and we need to re-write all textbooks about crystals - it’s a shift of the paradigm, which I think is most important.”


Since Galileo was mocked by established scientists and persecuted by the church in the 16th century for observing that the Earth moved round the Sun rather than the reverse, overturning accepted wisdom has never been easy, as several of this year’s Nobel prizewinners in science have shown.

Research that was largely ignored for years secured the medicine prize for the late Ralph Steinman and the astounding finding that the universe’s expansion was speeding up not slowing down meant the physics prize for its joint discoverers.

But in a year when science is in a froth over whether particles may have been fired from Geneva to Italy faster than the speed of light -- apparently defying Einstein -- few in the modern age have had to battle disbelief as hard as Shechtman.

“He dealt with the scepticism in a very scientific and gentlemanly manner and answered his critics as every scientist should -- through science,” Ron Lifshitz, a physics professor at Tel Aviv University, told Reuters. “There were also personal slurs but those did not warrant a response ... He believed in his own work and carried on with determination.”

Interviewed about his Nobel by television in Israel, where the award was big national news for a small country with a long roster of laureates, Shechtman spoke of a photograph in his office that showed a small cat sipping water, surrounded by angry dogs; a biblical inscription read: “Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil”.

“That’s the way I felt for many years,” Shechtman chuckled. “It accurately describes the situation, during that period.”

He “trusted in his science”, however, and came to see the criticism by the late Pauling, which Shechtman has described as “almost theological”, as a positive source of strength:

“When you’re a young scientist, and you’re faced with perhaps the top international scientist, Professor Linus Pauling ... and he argues with you as an equal, and you know that he is wrong - that’s not really such a bad feeling.”

(Additional reporting by Simon Johnson in Stockholm, Ben Hirschler in London, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Dan Williams, Ori Lewis and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Alastair Macdonald)

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.