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Nobel Prize winner's career started with the Mysterious Island

Researchers must dare, specialise and establish start-ups, said Dan Shechtman on his visit to Aalto University.

President Tuula Teeri and Nobel laureate Dan Shechtman at the 34th Annual Conference of Rectors and Presidents of European Universities of Technology. Photo: Lasse Lecklin.

October 5, 2011 was supposed to be an ordinary day at work for Dan Shechtman at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology. Then the phone rang, and this time the caller was not a student or a colleague.

'I was told to hold the line, as there was a very important call for me from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences,' Shechtman recalls and smiles.

'It wasn't the first time I had been nominated for a Nobel Prize, but I did not remember at all that the decision on the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was made on that particular day. It was a great moment, the highest point of my career.'

An impossible discovery

Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals in 1982. At the time, three decades ago, the discovery was considered impossible as it was thought that crystals are always made of symmetrical, periodically repeated atomic structures. However, the quasicrystals Shechtman had detected in a metallic alloy when examining it with a transmission electron microscope were non-periodic – like Fibonacci rabbits and Pen rose tiles that follow an ordered pattern, but are never repeated.

If we only ever believed what is said in books, humankind would never develop!

'After an afternoon of study, I knew what they were not, but it took me and my colleagues some time to find out what it really was that I had discovered,' Shechtman recalls.

The article introducing quasicrystals was published in 1984 and caused huge controversy in the science community. Linus Pauling, one of the great chemists of the 1900s, was the strongest critic among the opponents.

'The situation was strange in the beginning: I was an unknown researcher and he was a great powerful two time Nobel laureate. However, since I had carried out my work carefully I knew I was right, and I challenged my opponent to repeat my experiment and tell me what was wrong in my experiments. One argument my opponents had was that quasicrystals could not be found in any books,' Dan Shechtman says grinning.­

'If we only ever believed what is said in books, humankind would never develop!

Engineer who fell in love with science

Shechtman talks a lot about the impact of coincidences. His career could also have been different had he not read a certain book as a little boy.

'Jules Verne's Mysterious Island describes the adventures of engineer Cyrus Smith, who could solve any problem that came his way, I wanted to be like him.  He was my role model and I decided to become an engineer, too,' he says and laughs.

Dan Shechtman indeed graduated from Technion in 1966, in the middle of the deep recession, with a degree in mechanical engineering. When he could not find any job he decided to continue studying for a master's degree, and realised that he loved science. Shechtman has two simple pieces of advice for those who are starting a career in research.

'You have to understand the basics of everything: biology, physics, mathematics, and electronics. In addition, you need in-depth expertise in one field of specialisation and I promise you, if you do it properly you will definitely have a successful career as a researcher.'

In financially difficult times, it is often required that science also be profitable. The Nobelist reminds us that new technology cannot be born without quality and often time-consuming basic research.

Without basic research there will be no applications that create technology, which in turn creates products, markets and well-being.

­'Without basic research there will be no applications that create technology, which in turn creates products, markets and well-being,' he summarises.

In addition to chemistry, for the last 28 years, Shechtman has been teaching technological entrepreneurship at Technion, and encourages all universities to do the same.

'Technology companies create sustainable well-being to the world. Your students are the very people with the best possibilities to establish them; teach and encourage them to establish start-ups.'

Read more about Shechtman's thoughts from Tuula Teeri's blog.

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