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Nobel Prize Winner Shechtman Returns to Ames Tuesday

Dan Shechtman is the first sitting professor at Iowa State University to be named a Nobel Prize winner.

's first sitting Nobel Prize winner was welcomed to campus Tuesday with a standing ovation for the recognition of a 29-year-old discovery. 

Dan Shechtman, an Iowa State University Materials Science and Engineering professor and a research scientist for the Ames Laboratory, learned he would receive the honor in October while in Israel where he is also a professor.

“From that moment on, my life had changed,” said of life since he received the 2011 prize in chemistry for his 1982 discovery of quasicrystals.

He said the award started a  new phase in his life, one that includes invitations, flash bulbs and speeches, he said.

His first day back on campus after spending months away was no different.

Iowa State University and the U.S. Department of Energy Lab celebrated his return with a press conference. Alex King, U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory director, said Shechtman's discovery of quasicrystals inspired a new field of research and changed everything scientists thought about matter.

Some might wonder why the Nobel Prize came so many years later, King said.

“It was such an outrageous claim. It commanded huge amounts of corroboration and proof,” King said. “It absolutely turned science on its head.”

Shechtman, an Israeli-born chemist, normally comes to the university for the month of February, and in total spends about four months of every year working in Iowa.

During the event today, he spent several minutes recounting the story of learning he had been named a Nobel Prize winner and the events that followed. The professor didn't realize the day the prize for chemistry was awarded. He was in Israel, where he is also the Philip Tobias Professor of Materials Science at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, at the time the committee told him he had won.

He was told to wait 30 minutes to tell anyone. In the meantime, he sat thinking to himself what it would mean.

“I didn't even imagine 1 percent of what was going to happen,” he said.

He's been invited to make several speeches, had dinner with a royal family and taken a tour of a mine an ice palace and more.

After holding a press conference at the Department of Energy Ames Laboratory in a room of scientists, professors, a few students and a lot of media, he spent the afternoon in the Oak Room of the Memorial Union meeting with students who wanted his autograph.

Shechtman, 70, said in between events that there are four reasons he was the first to make the quasicrystal discovery.

First, he said quasi periodic materials had to be discovered by transmission electron microscope, which limits the number of people who could have made the same discovery. Second, it took an expert and there are not many transmission electron microscope experts, he said.

“No. 3, you have to have some tenacity. You start something and you don't let go,” Shechtman said.

Some scientists had made discoveries similar to Shechtman and dismissed them thinking they were impossible. Shechtman wanted his doctoral degree, he said, so he didn't give up.

“No. 4, you have to be self-assured and you have to have some courage,” he said. “You have to be able to stand tall and say you are all wrong and I am right.”

Shechtman was ridiculed for his initial discovery. Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel Laureate, dismissed his findings, until just before his death in 1994. He invited Shechtman to write a paper on the topic but died soon after.

“Opposition died with him,” Shechtman said.

Shechtman plans on continuing his work studying metals in between accepting invitations to speaking engagements and shaking the hands of small children who have won chemistry competitions.

He said all of his talks will be aimed at students.

“My message to them is, if you want to succeed in your career become an expert at something,” he said. He also encourages students to take risks and said all countries need to focus on start ups.

“When you open a start up, you will fail, but then try again,” Shechtman said.

At ISU, Shechtman will continue to teach students how to use transmission electron microscopes, and he will be a guest lecturer in a seminar called “Socrates Cafe: Can Engineering Solve the World's Problems?”

He will also give a speech called “The Discovery of Quasi-Periodic Crystals,” at 7 p.m., Feb. 20. at the Great Hall of the Memorial Union.

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