Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman has won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his controversial discovery of non-repeating patterns in atoms called quasicrystals.
He is the fourth Israeli to win the award in chemistry, and the 10th Israeli to win a prestigious Nobel Prize in the country’s 63-year history.
The Nobel Committee for Chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Shechtman, a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, had discovered quasicrystals, that appeared to be like “fascinating mosaics of the Arabic world reproduced at the level of atoms” and which never repeated themselves.
Shechtman, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1941, had to fight hard for his science. He received his undergraduate and post-graduate degrees from the Technion, and joined the faculty in 1975.
It was while he was on sabbatical at John Hopkins University and working with the National Bureau of Standards in 1982 that he discovered a startling anomaly in the atom patterns of a quasicrystal, a metallic alloy.
Until this discovery, scientists believed that atom patterns inside quasicrystals had to repeat themselves symmetrically. The atoms that Shechtman saw through his electron microscope, however, were packed in a pattern that could not be repeated.
A fierce battle against science
Shechtman’s findings were considered extremely controversial at the time and he was ridiculed by the scientific community for two years. During the course of defending his scientific work, the professor was asked to leave his research group.
In an interview he later said: “If you’re a scientist and believe in your results: fight for them. Fight for the truth.”
“The configuration found in quasicrystals was considered impossible, and Daniel Shechtman had to fight a fierce battle against established science,” Nobel Committee for Chemistry announced. His discovery “fundamentally altered the way chemists look at solid matter.”
Since then hundreds of materials have been found to exist with the structure Shechtman discovered, and scientists have come to a better understanding of what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level by studying medieval Islamic mosaics in Alhambra Palace in Spain and the Darb-i Imam Shrine in Iran. The mosaics have regular patterns and follow mathematical rules, but they never repeat themselves.
Quasicrystals are thought to have potential applications in protective alloys and coatings, and one Swedish company has found them in a type of steel, where the crystals reinforce the material like armor. Scientists are today experimenting with using the crystals in different products, from diesel engines to frying pans.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Shechtman on Tuesday to say: “I would like to congratulate you, on behalf of the citizens of Israel, for your award, which expresses the intellect of our people. Every Israeli is happy today and every Jew in the world is proud.”
Shechtman, who is also an associate of the US Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, and a professor at Iowa State University, wins 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.45 million) for his work. His was the third of this year’s Nobel Prizes.
Earlier today Shechtman, who won the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1999, and the Israel Prize for physics in 1998, told the Associated Press that “it feels wonderful.”
A history of Nobel winners
In 2009, Prof. Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her ground-breaking work in understanding how cells build proteins. She was just the fourth woman to win the prize in chemistry.
Yonath, who is the head researcher in the field of structural biology and biochemistry at the Weizmann Institute, is widely considered the pioneer of ribosome crystallography. Her research, carried out over a 25-year period, has revealed the modes of action of over 20 different antibiotics that target bacterial ribosomes.
Her research lays the groundwork for scientists to start developing new bacteria-resistant antibiotics that better target the ribosomes of pathogens to avoid the problem of resistance.
Other Israeli Nobel prize winners include Israeli mathematician Yisrael Robert Aumann, who received the Nobel Prize for economics in 2005 for his work on conflict and cooperation through game theory analysis.
Other notable Israelis who have won Nobel Prizes include Prof. Daniel Kahneman, who won in Economics in 2002 and Profs. Avram Hershko and Prof. Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion, winners of the Prize in chemistry. Three Israeli politicians have also won the Nobel Prize for peace – Menachem Begin in 1978, and Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994.