College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

The noble story of a laureate

Since October 5, 2011, when the announcement of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was made, the story of Dan Shechtman has been shared worldwide as an example of determination, courage, and fortitude.

Dan Shechtman
Dan Shechtman with one of the tools of his science, a scanning transmission electron microscope in Wilhelm Hall. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Shechtman—an Iowa State professor of materials science and engineering, a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, and the Philip Tobias Professor of Materials Science at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology—rocked the materials science world when he discovered quasicrystals in 1982.

To some, the disbelief of his findings meant the results naturally needed to be verified and documented before celebrating too much. To others (many held in high regard in the field), it seemed Shechtman was standing behind something that was unfathomable. These feelings even resulted in him being unfairly dismissed from a research group.

Shechtman’s story has a monumental beginning, a middle full of highs and lows, and now 29 years later, a happy ending.

Sticking to his guns

For those lucky enough to have a chance to talk with him, Shechtman has a positive disposition. Laughing and kidding seems like second nature. It’s hard to imagine he has spent a better part of his career refuting naysayers.

The stories below are just a few that describe the opposition he faced. They give some insight into quasicrystals, a unique form of matter that exists in metallic alloys. More importantly, though, they will show how Shechtman persevered and why he is worthy of the honor of Nobel laureate.

Dan Shechtman
Shechtman talks about how quickly life changes after being named a Nobel laureate. Photo by Bob Elbert.

A “martensitic” transformation

The experience of receiving a Nobel Prize is best described by the winner himself. Shechtman’s tale is entertaining, including quips like a side note about how he had to borrow his wife Tzipi’s car the day he found out he had won the prize because his 21-year-old car wouldn’t start. He talks about being treated like a celebrity in Stockholm and how he plans to inspire students through talks in the future. Even months after the ceremony in Sweden, Shechtman gives the sense the experience has been surreal, a sign he remains humble even after receiving such a high honor.

A new purpose

Now able to refocus his positive energy into something new, Shechtman plans to take his story to the road along with a message that encourages students to become experts and be willing to take risks.

He has additional passions that drive him—an impending energy crisis and an entrepreneurial spirit—and he plans to tackle them through his talks as well.

Proudly wearing a tie with the infamous quasicrystal pattern, Shechtman serves as a reminder to challenge traditional thinking and to stay true to the person you are through the good and the bad.