Dan Shechtman Talks To NoCamels About Winning The Nobel Prize And The Future Of Education

By Jordan Miller, NoCamels July 01, 2013 Comments

Dan Shechtman wears many hats. He is the 2011 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals,;the Tobias Professor of Materials Science at the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology in Haifa; an avid believer and leader of Israeli education reform; and a doting father and grandfather to four children and ten grandchildren.

Unlike most young boys, Shechtman never wanted to be a firefighter, or Superman, or an astronaut. His dream was to be an engineer. “I read a book when I was young, called Mystery Island,” Shechtman says, “the main character was an engineer and he could do everything… I wanted to be like him.”

After his military service, Shechtman studied mechanical engineering at the Technion. He graduated in 1966, and exited the university into a time of economic recession in Israel. With minimal job prospects, he decided to continue his studies and pursue a master’s degree in materials engineering. It was during these two years that he fell in love with science, and his young dreams of becoming an engineer matured into a new dream – becoming a scientist.

The long and winding road to recognition

On April 8, 1982, Shechtman made a discovery that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize and change the field of crystallography forever. But he would have to endure a long and rocky road before getting his prize.

Shechtman at NIST

Shechtman at NIST

Seven months after he began his sabbatical in Maryland at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), formerly the National Bureau of Standards, he discovered a new type of crystal – the quasicrystal. It was a discovery that nobody at the time, including Shechtman, dreamed possible.

“Until my discovery, the definition of a crystal was a material in which the atoms are ordered and periodic. All crystals were like this, and all crystals means hundreds of thousands of crystals, all of them periodic and all of them ordered. I found a new class of crystal, in which the atoms are ordered, but not periodic. This discovery created a paradigm shift in crystallography, and the definition of a crystal has been changed to something totally different, and this,” says Shechtman, “is my greatest achievement in science.”

Despite interest from all over the world and publications in several leading journals, the legitimacy of quasi periodicity was met with resistance, and it took years to convince the scientific community that what Shechtman had found was, in fact, real. Shechtman’s greatest opposition was two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, who was vehemently against the notion of quasi periodicity, and worked hard to disprove it. “Pauling was the greatest chemist in the United States, he was the godfather of the American Chemical Society…it was the American Chemical Society spearheaded by Linus Pauling against Danny Shechtman!” Pauling fought Schechtman for ten years until his death in 1994, which marked, according to Shechtman, the end of the resistance. “We had a growing community and he had a shrinking community, I started one against the world, but I knew I was right.”

In 1992 the International Union of Crystallography accepted the existence of the quasi periodic material, and the definition of a crystal was changed. In 2011, Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery.

Rethinking Israeli education

Quasicrystal

Quasicrystal

In his speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm City Hall on December 10, 2011, Schechtman asserted, “it is our duty as scientists to promote education, rational thinking, and tolerance,” and he has taken it upon himself to do just that.

This past year, he piloted a new project called ‘Science in Kindergartens’ in which science is taught to five-year-old kindergarten students in Haifa. “I want to spread this all over Israel, all over the world in fact.” At the launch of his Science in Kindergarten program last year, Shechtman declared, “We need new generations of young people who have rational thinking, we need children that ask questions. These are the people who will convert our world into a better world.”

However, he sees ascertainable problems with the Israeli education system as is, and has been rallying public opinion in recent months for education reformation. He explained that the quality of education itself is not at fault, but rather, the lack of enforcement of this education.

“The biggest problem is that a good percentage of parents in Israel don’t want to send their children to school, they want them to study religious studies. Therefore, not everybody in this country is getting a good basic education. It’s generation after generation of people who cannot hold or find a job because they don’t know math or English or anything basic. Many people are not working. You cannot build a country like this. If the education system in Israel continues this way, Israel is a lost cause,” Shechtman declares.

“Education for all”

He believes Israel is unique in its case. “In other countries, you have a similar issue with education enforcement, but the reason is different. For example, parents send their children to work, and not to school. But this isn’t the case here.”

Israel’s Compulsory Education Law, established in 1949, states that education is mandatory for all children residing in the country from pre-primary school through 12th grade. Yet, as Shechtman said, “[in] the United States, it’s clear to you [that] the law is for everybody. In Israel, the laws are for the law-abiding people. If you abide by the law, then the law is for you. If not, then the law is not for you. That’s it.” The enforcement of these laws would be, in his opinion, the first step towards reformation and the implementation of a successful education system. He believes that “it’s the decision makers, the parliament, that will have to make the change. They have the power to do so, they should take also the responsibility. Education for all. Everybody has to comply.”

“Know a lot about everything but be number one at something”

When asked what piece of advice he would give to students, Shechtman replied: “My advice is very simple. If you want to excel in science in the future, or anything else for that matter, you must have two things; you have to have a broad knowledge of many subjects- not deep, but you have to know what’s possible and what’s not, and secondly you have to develop one expertise. Try to be number one in one thing, be it an experimental technique, a theoretical subject. I promise you, if you have a broad knowledge and have developed one peak of expertise, you will have a wonderful career.”

Schetman is in his 27th year of teaching a course at Technion called Technological Entrepreneurship, designed to encourage graduates to apply their knowledge of engineering and science to form startup companies. “I’ve had a total of 10,000 engineers and scientists complete my course, now they’re walking about Israel and they have the chip of entrepreneurship embedded in their minds.”

Photo: Technion – Israel Institute of Technology

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