“My message to young scientist is the following: if you want a wonderful career in science or in other areas, thrive to become an expert. Once you are an expert you can trust yourself, you can trust your results, and then you can stand tall and protect your ideas and your findings," says Dan Shechtman.
Image: David Blumenfeld/Nobel Media 2011
When Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman sat at his desk on the morning of April 2, 1982, he would make a discovery that would change the rest of his life and the way we define crystals. Hardly able to believe what he was seeing, the scientist held in his hands results of an electron diffraction he was using at Johns Hopkins University to investigate a quickly solidifying aluminum-magnesium alloy - and it showed him something completely unexpected.
Instead of a usual symmetric crystalline arrangement in three-, four- or six-fold axes, the diffraction pattern indicated 10-fold axes. A peculiar arrangement, this shape meant that the individual atoms no longer had the same distance to all neighbours, which at the time, was a basic fundamental of crystal formation.
“Everything happened in one morning,” says Shechtman, who noted down the discovery in his laboratory book with three question marks. But despite his shock, he nonetheless believed the result. “You should always be open and listening,” says Shechtman, emphasising that being able to recognise possibility is a valuable asset. “A humble scientist is a good scientist, somebody who is listening.”
Though further measurements confirmed Shechtman’s belief in his discovery of the then unknown quasi-periodic crystal form, he received a widespread negative reaction from the word of science. The scientific community was quick to criticise. Even Shechtman’s own supervisor, upon reading his student’s paper, handed him a chemistry textbook and told him to leave the group.
The strong stigma against Shechtman and his quasi-crystal discovery remained for some time and the scientific community refused to accept his discoveries, as the theory went against everything that had gone before it in the chemistry world.
But Shechtman was adamant he was right. “If you want to prove someone is wrong, go repeat their experiments, prove that they are wrong … They criticised only because they believed in an old paradigm,” said Shechtman.
The scientist is a firm believer that perseverance pays. “My message to young scientist is the following: if you want a wonderful career in science or in other areas, thrive to become an expert. Once you are an expert you can trust yourself, you can trust your results, and then you can stand tall and protect your ideas and your findings.”
Shechtman, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year for his discovery, says you shouldn’t be afraid to question the norm. “I can tell you what I told my children when they came from school and told me what they had learnt in chemistry and physics. I told them, no, this is not the case,” said Shechtman. “So come the exam, they asked me what they should write … what I said or what the teacher said? And I told them, well who do you believe is correct? They said me, so I told them write what you believe and if you get a low grade, fine by me.”
Through determination the discovery was finally recognised 10 years later, when Shechtman and his team succeeded in producing larger quantities of quasi-crystals and confirming their pattern by X-ray diffraction, convincing the international Union of Crystallography that quasi-crystals existed. The definition of crystals was then altered. Though the moral of the story is clear. “You have to always tell the truth, tell what is right … sometimes you have to pay the price and just judge,” says Shechtman. “An expert always checks his own results. If his further experiments prove him right, he can stand tall against all criticism that may come from theoreticians.”
Winning the Nobel Prize definitely allowed the scientist to ‘stand tall’ and is welcome recognition after his theory was originally rejected for so many years. Though Shechtman sees it differently, insisting a series of other prizes beforehand and just the simple fact of knowing he was right, that his experiments were proof, was satisfaction enough. “If I wouldn’t get the Nobel Prize, it would be ok, I know that I was nominated for many years, but it never really bothered me weather I got the prize or not,” stated Shechtman, who was surprised to receive the award in the end.
“I only ever thought about a prize in physics, I never thought about a prize in chemistry … none of the chemist ever told me anything, and I never knew that two days after physics they announced chemistry. Once I didn’t get the physics, I thought, ‘OK, another year passed by’.” But then came the news. “On the day of the announcement, I was just working in my office when the phone call came, I didn’t expect it and it came as a total surprise,” he said.
Today, we can find quasi-crystals in the production of particularly hard steels, thanks to their brittle and hard properties. Other practical applications include protection against corrosion in metals, the ability to adhere to low heat conductivity and non-stick properties, all three elements found in many fry pans. Moreover, Shechtman says the future for material sciences is even more exciting. “We need batteries for cars, we need cars to run by electricity, we don’t have that,” says Shechtman.
The Nobel Prize winner will be bringing his knowledge and experience to Australia in early September, when he visits Monash University in Melbourne to receive an honorary doctorate. After his causal visit in September, details will be ironed out for a permanent contract involving the Nobel Prize winner working in Melbourne for one month every year.
Editor's Note: Katrina Beavan attended the 2012 Nobel Laureate Meetings in Lindau for ScienceAlert. Katrina is an avid travel blogger and politics enthusiast with a passion for languages, travel and science. In her last year of a Journalism and Arts degree, she works as a freelance journalist and has written travel stories, reviews and more for various online sites. Reporting for ABC radio during the 2011 Australian floods was a highlight in her career. Follow her on Twitter.