Israel’s Latest Nobel Prize Intimates Need for Practical Politics

Posted on October 7, 2011 by


With the political climate in Israel darkening, this past week has offered us a breath of fresh Swedish air. On Wednesday, Dr. Daniel Shechtman of Israel was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystaline structures – solid structures heretofore unknown at a molecular level.

The prestige that accompanies a Nobel in science, however, should not be a short-lived distraction from the circus of international politics. Instead, the message of inquisitiveness that science seeks to investigate ought to serve as a model – that sometimes we must reevaluate our foundations to gain advanced understanding of the world around us. The Nobel Prize recognizes individuals who not only challenge standing paradigms within their fields, but who can successfully implement those for a better future.

In brief, quasicrystals possess a unique symmetry – or asymmetry – thus challenging the manner in which science perceives solid objects. They have been used to strengthen steel and to convert heat gradients directly into electricity. The latter application even portends to have a profound effect in addressing the challenges of global climate change.

“Scientists had previously thought solid matter had only two states — crystalline, like diamonds, where atoms are arranged in rigid rows, and amorphous, like metals, with no particular order. Quasicrystaline matter offers a third possibility and opens the door to new kinds of materials for use in industry,” wrote Patrick Lannin for Reuters yesterday.

Five of the seven 2011 Nobel laureates are Jewish, with the prizes for literature, peace, and economics to be presented later this week. Other Jewish recipients for the 2011 Nobel class include Ralph Steinman (medicine), Bruce Beutler (medicine), Saul Perlmutter (physics), and Adam G. Ross (physics).

Ignoring the impressive number of Jewish Nobel laureates (one hundred eighty-one thus far), or the fact that he is the third Israeli to win the award for chemistry in the past ten years, the persistently inquisitive nature of Shechtman’s discovery is uniquely Jewish. We all know the joke about how Jews answer questions. When Shechtman initially observed the irregular crystal pattern in his sample of aluminum-manganese, he reportedly recorded “Tenfold???” (Yes, with three question-marks). In this instance, as it has been one hundred eighty times before, the punchline must be, With a Nobel prize-winning question.

The peculiar tenfold symmetry  of quasicrystals is the same as can be seen in the growth of shellfish and flowers and the arrangement expressed by the mathematical constant represented by the Greek letter tau, also known as the ‘golden ratio.’ Its discovery in inorganic matter and the uses to which it can be applied ultimately led to Shechtman’s Nobel Prize-winning publication.

But this was not without great opposition from within the scientific community. The late two-time Nobel Prize recipient Linus Pauling doubted the existence of such structures and was reported as saying, “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” Shechtman was even asked to leave the team with which he was working at the time, accused by his superior as having brought disgrace upon the team for his insistence on the reality of quasicrystals.

With Galileo-like intransigence, Shechtman absorbed the doubt and criticism. He responded to his detractors not with defensiveness but with empirical evidence, and 10 million Swedish kronor later, his discipline has paid off. Interviewed about his Nobel an Israeli television station, Shechtman spoke of a photograph in his office that showed a small cat sipping water, surrounded by angry dogs; a biblical inscription read: “Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil”.

Continuing in the spirit of scientific progress and Judaism, we must ask ourselves yet another question – how is this Nobel Prize unlike all others before it? I would argue that the timing of this prize reveals an insight into the meaning of recent political events.

Just last week, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, opted to unilaterally shift the status of the Palestinian political entity from non-state observer status to (ideally) full member-state status or (realistically) enhanced observer status. The latter would allow the Palestinians to prosecute Israelis and others at the International Criminal Court. The implications of elevating the PA toward independent sovereignty weigh heavily in the scheme of Israel’s security. The questions of Israel’s security have yet to be completely answered. Consider the recent incident involving Israel’s embassy in Egypt, and now the threats coming from Syria’s dictator. And unless we want to have a separation barrier up forever, the Palestinians as well as the Israelis must develop long-term strategies for ensuring the safety of both their own people and their neighbors. This all starts with the posing of a few unmitigated, challenging, and conventionally unacceptable questions.

Perhaps the lesson we can learn from the nature of the Nobel is that independence should not be a goal in and of itself but a means for continued accomplishment. Israel’s rate of Nobel reception is uniquely disproportionate, with 10 prizes since the state’s founding. Shechtman has taught us that to question is essential, but to redefine is invaluable. The Nobel Prize is a means of evening the global playing field – to look at accomplishments objectively rather than subjectively. Numerous UN resolutions against Israel seek to fault the state for actions in the past, while the Nobel recognizes promise for the future. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu expresed his optimism in a conversation to Shechtman, saying, “Every Israeli is happy today, and every Jew in the world is proud.”

Posted in: Israel