Israeli universities have had to face ongoing, debilitating budget cuts by successive Israeli governments, moves that show contempt for their work, Nobel Prize winner Dan Shechtman told Israeli Radio Thursday.
Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry on Wednesday. A chemistry professor and a scientist at the prestigious Technion - Israel Institute for Technology, he decried the cuts to Israeli higher education budgets over the years, noting that only in the past year was there any reversal in the trend.
In the interview, Shechtman noted that Israeli governments have disrespected academia through their repeated budget cuts. "My colleagues and I were disappointed when governments repeatedly cut state funding for academia over the years," Shechtman said in the interview. According to Shechtman, shrinking budgets forced his university, the Technion, to lay off workers and furlough salaries.
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Shechtman is Israel's 10th Nobel Prize winner. He was awarded the honor for his discovery of quasicrystals, a mosaic-like chemical structure that researchers previously thought was impossible.
In awarding the prize to Shechtman, the Nobel Committee cited how his 1982 discovery turned conventional wisdom about solids on its head. At first, Shechtman's findings were rejected by the scientific community, and even got him kicked out of his research group.
Israeli Nobel Laureates include Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin, and Shmuel Yosef Agnon, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Uniquely, Shechtman is a sole recipient for the prize in his category. Other Israelis had to share the prize, in some cases even with people who had not been their collaborators.
"This is a great day, for me, obviously, but also for science," Shechtman said at a press conference Thursday. "There are thousands of scientists who study the field I have developed, and I am sure everyone views this prize as partly theirs too – and rightly so."
Shechtman was born in Tel Aviv in 1941. He initially aspired to become an engineer after reading Jules Verne's "Mysterious Island." After completing his degree at the Technion and working for the U.S. Air Force, he took a post at John Hopkins University. It was there, in 1982, that he made his groundbreaking discovery.
He was studying a mix of aluminum and manganese under his microscope when he found a pattern — similar to those seen in Islamic mosaics — that never repeated itself and appeared to challenge the laws of nature.
Contrary to the previous belief that atoms were packed inside crystals in symmetrical patterns, Shechtman showed that the atoms in a crystal could be packed in a pattern that could not be repeated, the academy said.
For months he tried to persuade his colleagues of his find, but they refused to accept it. Finally he was asked to leave his research group.
Shechtman returned to Israel, where he found one colleague prepared to work with him on an article describing the phenomenon. The article was at first rejected, but finally published in November 1984 — to uproar from the scientific world. Double Nobel winner Linus Pauling was among those who refused to accept the findings.
In 1987, friends of Shechtman in France and Japan succeeded in growing crystals large enough for X-rays to repeat and verify what he had discovered with his electron microscope.
"The lesson I learned over time is that a good scientist is a humble scientist who is willing to listen, not a scientist who is dead certain about something," Shechtman said on Thursday.
"We are not surprised by the decision to award the prize, but we have been waiting for this for a long time. We have always known that Professor Shechtman's discoveries have been transformative to physics and chemistry and it was obvious to us that at some point he would win this prestigious prize," Technion President Professor Peretz Lavie said Thursday. "We had all the crystal-patterned neckties ready ahead of time, and we are glad it finally materialized this year," he quipped.
Shechtman will receive 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.4 million). Despite the prize, Shechtman will probably prefer to stick to his routine at his current position at the Technion, where he holds the title of distinguished professor. "I am part of the Technion, and I am sure to continue teaching there. I am the spearhead of this research field, but we need many more battalions of researchers."
"I have no envy for any celebrity that you, the media, focus on each day: I have been trying incessantly to contact my children in the U.S. to inform them of my prize, but the phone just keeps ringing," he told reporters.
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