Former Wright-Patt scientist wins top chemistry honor
By Mark Luedtke
With the long-depressed economy around Dayton, it’s easy to forget about the region’s tradition of leadership in science and technology. That’s why it was exciting to discover that this year’s Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry has ties to Dayton from when he worked at the Aerospace Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
“I was there continuously from 1972 to 1975,” prize winner Dan Shechtman said. “I did my post doc at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I also taught at Wright Patterson every summer from 1975 up until 1980.”
Shechtman was born in Tel Aviv, Israel and is currently the Philip Tobias Professor of Materials Science at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. He is also Professor of Materials Science at Iowa State University. Shortly after leaving Dayton and beginning his career at Technion, Shechtman went on sabbatical in 1982 to the U.S. National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C. where he made his Nobel Prize-winning discovery of quasi-periodic crystals, called quasicrystals for short.
Until that time, all solid matter scientists had observed was composed of regular crystals. The defining characteristic of those crystals is a property called translational symmetry. That means that any place an observer looks at the crystal, it looks the same. It’s analogous to a regularly tiled floor, but in three dimensions. These patterns can be represented by mathematical equations. At that time scientists believed that all solid matter must be made up regular crystals.
As the name implies, quasicrystals are different. Quasicrystals have a regular structure that is immediately obvious to the eye, and that structure can also be described by mathematical equations, but there is no repeating pattern.
What Shechtman had discovered was considered impossible at the time and senior scientists ridiculed him. Linus Pauling, one of the most distinguished scientists of the 20th century, labeled Shechtman a “quasi-scientist.” The response of Shechtman’s group leader was more personal.
“My group leader showed up in my office and gave me a textbook, and said, ‘If you read this book, then you’ll understand that what you’re saying cannot be.’ I replied ‘I know this book. I don’t need to read it. I found something really special, and it’s outside the realm of the book.’ And he came later on and told me, ‘You are a disgrace to my group, and I ask you to leave my group. I don’t want you in my group.’ And so I left his group.”
Shechtman puts the treatment he received into perspective, “If you look at Nobel Prizes for many years, people discover new things, but what they discover is not against the common wisdom. It’s not against established paradigms, but my discovery was forbidden. My discovery was something that was forbidden by a mature science. In 1982 it had been a mature science for 70 years, and what I found was against the paradigm. And this is why it was so difficult for people to accept it.”
The criticism Shechtman received was both personal and professional, and he dealt with both the same way.
“I am the strongest critic of myself,” he said. “Until I’m sure that what I’m talking about in science is correct, I will not say anything. So I knew that I was correct, and the people who said I was not correct didn’t come with contrary evidence, they just said, ‘This cannot be.’”
Shechtman stood by his observations and persevered.
“A colleague joined forces with me, and we solved the remaining problems to the extent that you can send a paper for publication” said Shechtman. “The paper was rejected, then we wrote another paper with two more people, and finally it was published. When it was published, many people around the world started to work on it, and I was not alone anymore.”
Shechtman showed Linus Pauling more class than Pauling showed him, “There was one person who really objected to the whole idea to his last day, a very prominent person, Professor Linus Pauling, a two time Nobel Laureate. But he was not alone because he was the leader of the American Chemical Society. But when he died in 1994, the resistance died with him.” As for Dr. Shechtman’s former group leader, “He left science and went to do something else.” Today, hundreds of quasicrystals have been discovered, including some formed naturally. The head of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry announced Dr. Shechtman’s discovery “led to a paradigm shift within chemistry.”
Despite his newfound fame and demands on his time, Shechtman fondly recalled his time in Dayton.
“When I came to Dayton, this was my first visit to the United States so this was all new to me, and I liked it. People were nice to me,” he said. “Wright-Patterson was a good place to work.” But Shechtman didn’t spend all of his time working. One hobby he enjoyed was jewelry making classes at the Riverbend Art Center. He also has good taste in food.
“I like very much one restaurant in Dayton. It’s called the Pine Club,” he said. “The filet mignon there is the best in the world. I recommend it to everybody. Whenever anybody goes to the base for a visit, I tell them, ‘Make them take you to the Pine Club.’”
When Shechtman comes back to visit, this writer will treat.
Reach DCP freelance writer Mark Luedtke at MarkLuedtke@DaytonCityPaper.com.