The Technion’s Dan Shechtman is the Susan Lucci of the science world. It took Lucci 19 nominations before she won a Daytime Emmy for outstanding actress in 1999, and it took Shechtman 24 nominations before he won Wednesday the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
But although Lucci breathlessly awaited each year’s awards ceremony, Shechtman confessed that he had not even thought about the Nobel Prize this year and “didn’t expect it.” And thus when the phone rang in his office at 11:15 Wednesday morning, he was “surprised” to hear the woman on the other end say in a heavy Swedish accent: “This is the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences calling. Our president has an important announcement to tell you.”
After hearing the news from the academy’s president, Svante Lindqvist, Shechtman said Lindqvist handed the phone to five scientists who were there to extend their own congratulations.
“They were Swedish colleagues whose voices I recognized,” he said by phone from Israel. “It was wonderful. … I was asked to wait and not tell anyone for a half-hour so they could make the announcement. After that, everybody started to call and come in and there was hugging and kissing.”
Asked if he had called his wife, Ziporah, before the 30 minutes elapsed, Shechtman said: “I called my wife 10 minutes before the announcement. I have gotten quite a few prizes before and never told my wife. She was elated. She got on the computer to watch the announcement on the Internet. I couldn’t watch it because I had to finish something quickly and send it out.”
At a press conference Wednesday, Shechtman was quoted as saying that all of the calls of adulation had prevented him from calling his daughters in the United States to tell them of the honor.
“I think this is a great day for me, of course, but also a great day for the country,” he told reporters. “There are thousands of scientists that research the subject I developed, and I’m sure they all see the prize as an achievement for themselves as well — and indeed they deserve it.”
Shechtman, 70, said told The Jewish Week that he has been taking all of the adulation in stride.
“I am a very composed person and it was a wonderful feeling,” he said.
The Nobel Prize was awarded to Shechtman alone – a rarity — for his 1982 discovery of quasicrystals, a material in which atoms come together in well-defined but non-repeating patterns. Until then, scientists believed that crystals had only repeating patterns. After he published his findings in 1984, Shechtman said he faced “three years of rejection.” At one point, he was even asked to leave his research group at the U.S. National Institute of Standards where he was spending his sabbatical.
“Acceptance of the official community came in 1987, but that did not mean that everybody accepted it,” he said.
On Thursday, Shechtman met for an hour with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and discussed the field of science, education and higher education.
“It was potentially fruitful,” he said of the meeting, adding that he believes the Israeli education system has begun to improve in recent years.
“There are more funds spent on education and higher education and we have started to see a shift in the efforts of the government to enhance education,” he said. “There is also more attention being given to the needs of academic universities in Israel and there are signs of hope that it will continue for the next few years. I am more optimistic” about the future.
Asked the practical uses of his discovery, Shechtman described them as “few and far between.”
“The greatness of the discovery is on the scientific side,” he explained. “Don’t look for applications; that is not it. It’s pure science.”
The New York Times heralded the discovery as one that changed “the prevailing views about the atomic structure of matter.”
Shechtman, a distinguished professor in the Faculty of Materials Engineering at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, is the third Technion faculty member to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In 2004, Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko shared the prize with American Professor Irwin Rose. Ciechanover and Shechtman were both born in Israel; Hershko was born in Hungary. The fourth Israeli to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science, shared the prize in 2009.
Asked what he is working on next, Shechtman said he has given himself a new title: Ambassador of Science in Israel and Abroad.