IsraelInsideOut congratulates Professor Daniel Shechtman of the Technion in Haifa as he is awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of Quasicrystals. Professor Shechtman is Israel’s tenth Nobel Laureate. This prize is a triumph of scientific discovery, academic persistence, ancient art and the famous golden ratio.
The full Press Release of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is reproduced below.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2011 – Press Release
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2011 to
Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel – “for the discovery of quasicrystals”
A remarkable mosaic of atoms
In quasicrystals, we find the fascinating mosaics of the Arabic world reproduced at the level of atoms: regular patterns that never repeat themselves. However, the configuration found in quasicrystals was considered impossible, and Dan Shechtman had to fight a fierce battle against established science. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2011 has fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter.
On the morning of April 8, 1982, an image counter to the laws of nature appeared in Dan Shechtman’s electron microscope. In all solid matter, atoms were believed to be packed inside crystals in symmetrical patterns that were repeated periodically over and over again. For scientists, this repetition was required in order to obtain a crystal.
Shechtman’s image, however, showed that the atoms in his crystal were packed in a pattern that could not be repeated. Such a pattern was considered just as impossible as creating a football using only six-cornered polygons, when a sphere needs both five- and six-cornered polygons. His discovery was extremely controversial. In the course of defending his findings, he was asked to leave his research group.
Shechtman faced the biggest criticism coming from the eminent two-time Nobel laureate, Linus Pauling, who sneered at his discovery, “There are no quasi-crystals, just quasi-scientists.”
However, his battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter.
Aperiodic mosaics, such as those found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain and the Darb-i Imam Shrine in Iran, have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level. In those mosaics, as in quasicrystals, the patterns are regular – they follow mathematical rules – but they never repeat themselves.
When scientists describe Shechtman’s quasicrystals, they use a concept that comes from mathematics and art: the golden ratio. This number had already caught the interest of mathematicians in Ancient Greece, as it often appeared in geometry. In quasicrystals, for instance, the ratio of various distances between atoms is related to the golden mean.
Following Shechtman’s discovery, scientists have produced other kinds of quasicrystals in the lab and discovered naturally occurring quasicrystals in mineral samples from a Russian river. A Swedish company has also found quasicrystals in a certain form of steel, where the crystals reinforce the material like armor. Scientists are currently experimenting with using quasicrystals in different products such as frying pans and diesel engines.
Shechtman was born in Tel Aviv (in what was then Mandatory Palestine), on January 24, 1941. At a young age he had become interested in engineering after reading Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, in which a group of people are stranded on an island, far from any civilization. Shechtman recalled, “The key figure in that book is Cyrus Smith — he’s an engineer and he could do everything, he could do anything, and I wanted to be like him.”
After finishing his mandatory military service, Shechtman went to Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, to study mechanical engineering. He graduated in 1966, but because Israel was under economic recession at that time, he could not find a job. Instead, he chose to study for his master’s degree, hoping that he could find a job when the economic problems had passed. But he decided to continue his studies and eventually earned his Ph.D. in Materials Engineering from the Technion, in 1972.
Apart from winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2011, Shechtman is also an awardee of the Israeli Prize (1998), Wolf Prize in Physics (1999) and Gregori Aminoff Prize (2000).
Shechtman is married to Tzipora Shechtman, a retired professor at Haifa University (where she was Head of the Department of Counseling and Human Development). They have four children together, including the physicist Yoav Shechtman, who currently heads the Nano-Bio-Optics lab at the Technion.