JERUSALEM — When Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman claimed to have stumbled upon a new crystalline chemical structure that seemed to violate the laws of nature, colleagues mocked him, insulted him and exiled him from his research group.
After years in the scientific wilderness, though, he was proved right. And on Wednesday, he received the ultimate vindication: the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
"A good scientist is a humble and listening scientist and not one that is sure 100 percent in what he read in the textbooks," Shechtman said.
The shy, 70-year-old Shechtman said he never doubted his findings and considered himself merely the latest in a long line of scientists who advanced their fields by challenging the conventional wisdom and were shunned by the establishment because of it.
In 1982, Shechtman discovered what are now called "quasicrystals" — atoms arranged in patterns that seemed forbidden by nature.
"I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying," he recalled. "I never took it personally. I knew I was right and they were wrong."
The discovery "fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in awarding the $1.5 million prize.
Since his discovery, quasicrystals have been produced in laboratories, and a Swedish company found them in one of the most durable kinds of steel, which is now used in products such as razor blades and thin needles made specifically for eye surgery, the academy said. Quasicrystals are also being studied for use in new materials that convert heat to electricity.
Shechtman is a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, and also teaches at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. He is the 10th Israeli Nobel winner
His discovery had to do with the idea that a crystal shape can be rotated a certain amount and still look the same. A square contains four-fold symmetry, for example: If you turn it by 90 degrees, a quarter-turn, it still looks the same. For crystals, only certain degrees of such symmetry were thought possible. Shechtman had found a crystal that could be rotated one-fifth of a full turn and still look the same.
"I told everyone who was ready to listen that I had material with pentagonal symmetry. People just laughed at me," he said in an account released by his university.
He was asked to leave his research group, and moved to another one within the National Bureau of Standards, Shechtman said. He eventually 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 was finally published in November 1984 to an uproar in the scientific world.