The Israeli Nobel prize winner shares how his career was inspired by Jules Verne and the unexpected fortune of failing to find a job
Dan Shechtman is a distinguished professor emeritus at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and a distinguished professor at Iowa State University, US. In 2011, he won the Nobel prize in chemistry for the discovery of quasicrystals.
My dream in life was to be a mechanical engineer. Why so? Because the book I loved when I was young is a book by Jules Verne called The Mysterious Island. In this book, there is a group of five Americans stranded on an island. The island has everything, but no people, and they create life there, modern life in the days of Jules Verne. The leader is an engineer, Cyrus Smith is his name. He could make everything, he was my idol. I wanted to be like him.
I graduated in 1966. That year, there was a big recession all over the world, I could not find a job. Is it good or bad that you don’t find a job? Sounds bad, right? At the time I was two years married and I said: ‘Well, I’ll do my master’s degree, get some salary as a teaching assistant, and then find a job.’ But during these three years of my master’s, I fell in love with science and I decided to go for my PhD. So if you don’t find a job, it’s not necessarily bad. I think I could have been a good mechanical engineer, but fate took me to a different place.
I have 12 grandchildren, four children, one wife. My wife is a professor at Haifa University. She’s in education, psychology. We spend a lot of time with our family. We read. We walk. I exercise to keep in shape. We meet friends. We have a close group of friends in our building. About every month we take turns to arrange a lecture in one of our homes. We bring in fascinating people that talk about current issues in the world, about different subjects. And I go around the world. Before the pandemic I gave lectures in 30 cities, in different countries, every year.
Both my wife and I like to cook at home. We spend maybe an hour a day doing just that. I like fish, I prepare the sauce for it and bake it in the oven. Buckwheat, potatoes, vegetables, we eat a lot of salad, different cheeses. Minimal bread, to avoid getting too fat.
Emotional intelligence is just as important as knowledge for success in life
The book that was most interesting to me that I read recently asked the question: Is there life outside our world? It is written by an Israeli scientist, in Hebrew only. He analyses different aspects of the issue in the book. Personally, I strongly believe that there is life, a lot of life, because the number of stars is huge, and the number of planets around each star is even bigger. Intelligent life is a different story altogether – and the book comes to about the same conclusion.
The government should not be involved in science. In a top-down system, science cannot work very well. In a top-down system, the government trickles down to the university level. Imagine a university gets $10 million dollars, but they have to spend it in one month. The university president will ask the deans of the different faculties: “I have 10 million, what do you need?” They end up with 20 different demands and they decide what to buy. And then they have an instrument that nobody knows how to operate because they didn’t really ask for it.
Science progresses in two ways: one is evolution, another is revolution. You can predict evolution part. I can tell you now, that in the future we will have only electric cars. I can tell you now, that we will solve the problem of cancer. Revolution, you cannot predict. However, there is a lot of effort invested in all the subjects that link biology and chemistry and engineering. I believe that these subjects will be dominating the Nobel prizes in the future.
The division between chemistry, physics, biology is not efficient. It is the same thing. The rules of thermodynamics are the same for all of them. It is science, it’s one thing, the division is artificial. Historically, we separate between the subject, but practically, there’s no reason really.
I don’t understand quantum mechanics. I know how it works but I don’t understand it. It’s illogical. God plays dice!
The advice I would give to others is to see others as people. It sounds simple, but many people don’t see the other person. Emotional intelligence is just as important as knowledge for success in life. It’s very important to be a good human being.
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