Innovation/Global Risk 

How to Win a Nobel Prize 

By Shlomo Maital

 

  

 

 

 

  Technion Materials Engineering Prof. Dan Shechtman is the tenth Israeli to win a Nobel prize, the fifth Israeli to win one since 2002 and the third Technion-Israel Institute of Technology 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 he did it.   

   1.  Read Jules Verne and dream.    Shechtman says he read Jules Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island 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.  

   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 a pattern 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.”

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