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Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Theatre of Life: Quasicrystals, the True Story of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, starring Dan Shechtman, Professor of Applied Material Sciences at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa

April 8, 1982. Dan Shechtman is a young Israeli materials scientist on a one year sabbatical in the United States. He experiments with heating up metal compounds and cooling them down quickly. An area of the resulting cooled-down mass looks different from the rest. Dan examines it under the electron microscope. What he sees at the atomic level is a structure that contradicts everything that has been taught on the subject. And so he doubts his findings. He writes in his notebook in Hebrew “Ayn Chayah Kazo”: A beast like this does not exist. He carefully checks his experiments and his method. Finally, he concludes that as a result of his findings, chapter 1 of all the basic text-books on the structure of matter will have to be rewritten.

At the time of Dan Shechtman's discovery, the mainstream of scientists works with X-rays to examine molecular structures. And using X-ray technology the results Dan saw under the electron-microscope cannot immediately be confirmed. Rather than question the paradigm, which has prevailed in their field since 1912, Dan's colleagues decide to disbelieve and even ridicule him as a charlatan. The head of Shechtman's research group, a personal friend, gives him a copy of a beginners' textbook and tells him to read it carefully. When Shechtman persists, he is fired from his research group as his boss and former friend does not want to risk the research group being exposed to the worldwide ridicule of other scientists in the field.

Shechtman manages to convince a colleague in Israel, that his stunning results are real. The colleague develops a theory framework based on the experimental results. But a paper they submit for publication in the field of Physics is rejected by the editors. The explanation given for the rejection is that Dan's discovery is of no interest to physicists. But he does not give up and slowly manages to convince a few more scientists and after four years of struggle, a scientific journal in the field of materials science publishes a paper co-written with colleagues that describes his findings.

Despite this publication, Linus Pauling, a scientist with the rare distinction of having won two Nobel Prizes in two different fields (Chemistry and Peace), continues to ridicule Dan Shechtman's work until his death in 1994. (Perhaps the 3 Lenin Prizes Pauling received in the 1960s from the Soviet Government disposed him to being somewhat dogmatic.)

But Dan Shechtman and the growing number of scientists who support his position does not give up and finally there is a paradigm shift in the theory on the structure of matter. Dan Shechtman's findings have entered the mainstream.

For those of us who believed that, in the natural sciences, excommunication and ridicule were tools of the established religious power against the advance of science, the true story of the structure of quasicrystals which plays in the 1980s will come as a shock. Human nature apparently does not need religious dogma to stay closed-minded. Scientists can be blacklisted by the community of scientists i.e. “excommunicated”, when they dare to challenge conventional wisdom and existing paradigms.

Luckily for Dan Shechtman, he lives in an open and democratic society. So no legal code in Israel and the rest of the West threatens his life as a result of his challenge to existing scientific authorities. Moreover, it does not take the several centuries it took the findings of Galileo and Kepler to overcome the paradigms and dogmas of their era.

It is interesting to speculate whether it was coincidence that Dan Shechtman has spent his academic career in Israel, where he is Distinguished Professor at the Technion, Institute of Technology in Haifa. It is also here that he initially found support for publishing his findings from a colleague. There are few other countries where people are willing to be persistent in the face of hostility and threats of exclusion from the scientific, cultural and political sphere not only by their enemies, but by their erstwhile colleagues and friends. There is ample evidence that the spirit shown by Shechtman, who is also one of the pioneers in Israel for teaching budding scientists entrepreneurship may be more pervasive in Israel than in other Western democracies. Numerous examples are found in the stories of Israeli High Tech Enterprises as told by Douglas and Helen Davis in their 2009 study of the Israeli high technology sector “Israel in the World”.

Meanwhile, Dan Shechtman's discovery of quasicrystals has given rise to a whole new field of cross-disciplinary science. Quasicrystals can today be found in many applications such as in surgical instruments and as a protective cover against extreme temperatures on turbine blades.

The Swedish Nobel Prize Committee for Chemistry 2011 deserves high praise for its choice of Nobel Laureate and the reasoning behind it. The message to young scientists is: build on the body of existing knowledge of your field but dare to challenge its fundamental principles, you may live to enjoy the fruit of your courage and conviction. The message to confirmed scientists is: listen carefully when a young colleague questions a paradigm with which you have worked successfully during your professional life.

But there may be a wider lesson to be learnt that is applicable to European academic and political institutions: listen carefully to voices from other confirmed democratic open societies which challenge your political and social paradigms; consider carefully whether these paradigms may need shifting, too.

European attitudes towards Israeli academics, artists and politicians who take a view different from the prevailing conventional wisdom may just be a place to start implementing such an attitude. No boycotts, no divestment, no sanctions but an open and frank dialogue which includes listening to uncomfortable views that challenge old paradigms is the right way forward.

To find out watch Dan Shechtman tell his own story here.

And watch the video of the announcement of the 2011 Nobel prize for Chemistry here.

What has Dan Shechtman learnt from his experience of having his findings rejected and ridiculed?

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