Shechtman leaves legacy as Nobel Prize winner, builds legacy in education

Dan Shechtman, 2011 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, will present a lecture on March 13, 2013 in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union. He will discuss how technological entrepreneurship can help improve the use of resources around the world.

Elizabeth Polsdofer

Although colleagues and friends have insisted that winning the Nobel Prize hasn’t changed his personality or inflated his ego, one laureate said his life has changed dramatically since he discovered he won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Oct. 5, 2011.

“The Nobel Prize is a phase transformation in one’s life, and it happens in one second,” said Danny Shechtman, U.S. Department of Energy Ames Laboratory scientist and ISU distinguished professor of materials science and engineering.

Shechtman won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals in 1982, a finding that seemed impossible to the scientific community at the time. Now that he’s won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of quasicrystals, Shechtman hopes to spend time doing outreach.

“The Nobel Prize is a license to do whatever you want, practically speaking,” Shechtman said. “I chose to talk mainly to young people.”

Most of Shechtman’s time is spent traveling the world, educating people about the importance of science, education and technological entrepreneurship.

Technological Entrepreneurship

In his lecture on March 13, 2013, “Technological Entrepreneurship: A Key to World Peace and Prosperity,” Shechtman will speak to the ISU community about how to expand businesses based on technology.

“Danny established an entrepreneurship class in the days before there was even a word for ‘entrepreneurship,’” said Pat Thiel, distinguished professor of chemistry and senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy Ames Laboratory. “He said, ‘We were teaching the students at the Technion valuable and useful things, but we did not really teach them how to translate that knowledge into the business world.’”

Thiel said that the first class Shechtman taught about technological entrepreneurship at Technion, a technology institute in Shechtman’s home country of Israel, was standing-room-only in an auditorium large enough to hold several hundred people. Shechtman attempted to begin a similar class at Iowa State, but his efforts were not met with success.

Encouraging technological entrepreneurship is a small part of Shechtman’s overall goal of increasing the number of educated people around the world.

Outreach to students and educating the future

Before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Shechtman corresponded with the Nobel Prize committee to ensure students in Israel were surrounded with stories of the recipients of each year’s prizes.

“Every year, the Nobel Prize committee makes beautiful posters to celebrate their prizes. Danny realized that they would be very inspirational if they could be distributed and posted in schools in Israel,’” Thiel said. “He worked with the Nobel Prize Committee to find an appropriate translator. Nowadays, they translate the posters into Hebrew and send him thousands of posters every year.”

Most of his time is spent traveling or in Israel, but Shechtman still has made an impact on the ISU community.

“We were absolutely thrilled for Dan Shechtman when he won the Nobel Prize in chemistry,” said Jonathan Wickert, ISU senior vice president and provost. “It’s wonderful for our students to have the opportunity to interact with him, to learn from him and also to learn from him as a role model.”

Thiel said Shechtman continues to be an accessible person and enjoys visiting with students. Shechtman said he enjoyed teaching students at Iowa State about electron microscopy, the technique he was using when he discovered quasicrystals.

“Many Nobel laureates feel that this is a great opportunity to develop their laboratories and get more funds,” Shechtman said. “You know, it’s an option — I could do that — but I decided to talk to many people.”

Shechtman said that he has at least 25 trips to places around the world planned to talk to people about science, education and technological entrepreneurship. On his busiest days, Shechtman will give several speeches with audiences varying from school children to country leaders.

“The big challenge — and Danny has really mastered it — is knowing how to talk to the audience you have,” said Alex King, director of the U.S. Department of Energy Ames Laboratory. “He has this great ability to know how to present his information to the audience he has right at hand. Most scientists never, ever get that.”

Opposition from the scientific community

Wickert said he hopes students understand that besides discovering quasicrystals, there is a lot to learn from Shechtman’s character.

“He had a fantastic discovery of a totally new form of matter called quasicrystals, but the other aspect of the story is that after he discovered that, he faced a lot of adversity in the scientific community,” Wickert said. “Dan’s integrity and his communication and his perseverance and his humbleness really enabled him to get his discovery out there and accepted.”

When Shechtman announced the discovery of quasicrystals, he was met with bitter opposition from a large portion of the scientific community, especially from Linus Pauling, winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize in chemistry and 1962 Nobel Peace Prize.

“He was opposed by Linus Pauling, and Pauling was used to winning fights, but when he came up against Danny he didn’t win,” Thiel said. “Most people would have found a way to avoid the controversy or would have backed down, but Danny didn’t.”

Pauling, considered one of the foremost authorities on chemistry and atomic structures during his lifetime, adamantly refused to believe in quasicrystals until the day of his death.

“It’s important to note that when [Shechtman] won the Nobel Prize, it was just him,” Wickert said. “Him being the sole recipient of the prize is particularly noteworthy because when he made that discovery, he stood alone for many years.”

Danny Shechtman: the family man

When asked what he wishes people know about him, Shechtman began talking about his family.

His oldest son is finishing his doctorate in physics, studying nonlinear optics; his three daughters are psychologists, like his wife, Tzipora.

“Education is very important to him personally. He’s very proud of the educational levels that everyone in his family achieves,” Thiel said. “I believe he thinks that an educated world is a better world; that people make better decisions if they’re educated.”

Shechtman said it doesn’t matter what someone studies as long as they enjoy a subject and strive for the highest level of education they can.

“I have a grandson who is three years old. He knows that he needs to finish his Ph.D. before he can start thinking,” Shechtman said. “This is rule number one: Get very good education in a subject that you like.”

Photographs of his four children and 10 grandchildren cover the walls of Shechtman’s office.

“Be good to your parents, to your spouse sometime in your future, to your children,” Shechtman said. “Invest in them; it’s very important.”

Looking to the future

Shechtman’s advice to college students is to have a small understanding of a large number of subjects, but to excel in one area.

“Have a wide, broad education. You should know little things about everything. Broad education and at least one peak, be an expert in that. Find a niche and try to be the best.”

In addition to discovering the quasicrystal and redefining the fundamental understanding of matter, Shechtman wants to be remembered as someone who inspired others.

“Will I make more discoveries? I don’t think I will have time to do that,” Shechtman said. “I have decided to inspire other people and have some influence on decision-makers around the world; I think that currently this is the best contribution that I can make for a better world.”