Shechtman finds life hectic, rewarding after Nobel Prize

ImageLife has been a whirlwind for Danny Shechtman since he was selected for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in October of 2011. He’s traveled around the world – several times – and made countless appearances at conferences, state dinners and special events. His busy itinerary included a return to Ames in late February and he sat down with Insider’s Kerry Gibson to share some of his experiences with his colleagues at Ames Laboratory.

Any idea how many appearances you’ve made in the past year?

“Many, many interviews and appearances all over the world. This year (2013) is full – I don’t have any free time – I have about 25 trips this year, including some very interesting places such as the Galapagos Islands, Easter Island, and Iguacu Falls on the border between Brazil and Argentina. And more ‘mundane’ places like Paris, Rio de Janeiro, as well as South Korea, Singapore, and Australia. I get an invitation from Brazil about every month.”

“So life is quite interesting! What’s most interesting is the people I meet. I like to talk to decision makers and represent mainly Israel … the ‘nice’ side of Israel, the scientific, rational, and entrepreneurial.”

Who have you had a chance to meet?

“I’ve met Michelle and Barack (Obama), President (Ying-jeou) Ma of Taiwan, the President of Singapore (Tony Tan Keng Yam), and of course the President of Israel (Shimon Peres). “

“I also met former President Bill Clinton at a dinner at the White House – we were seated at the same table.  So I was introduced to him and he said, ‘Oh Danny Shechtman, Nobel Laureate for Chemistry 2011. If I would start my career again, I’d want to be a materials engineer.’ So I suggested to him to come to the Technion, take two classes from me and we’ll get you started.”

“He’s a swell guy and very sharp. He’s a very smart man and also very wise.”

“I also had a lunch in my honor with the Australian Parliament. It was amazing. They were so positive and outgoing.”

“I had wanted to meet the president of Brazil (Dilma Rousseff) and we had a meeting scheduled last year, but she had to go to London for the Olympics because the next summer games will be in Rio de Janeiro. So hopefully I can meet her when I’m in Brazil later this year.”

“I was in Istanbul, Turkey and was interviewed by a newspaper reporter who asked me, ‘How can you help correct the relationship between Israel and Turkey?’ I said I’d like to meet Prime Minister (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan and talk to him. So the reporter asked, ‘What would you say to him?’ And I told him I’d ask him, What do you want to improve the relationship? The reporter asked, ‘And if he says he wants an apology?’ I said, Great, at least I know what he wants. ‘And what would you do?’ I said I’d talk with our Prime Minister and let him know what they want.”

“When the United States wanted to improve relations with China, they sent a ping pong team.  I want to be the ping pong team … let’s talk!”

“I’m not involved in politics except that I really want to make things better. In Israel, I’m not involved with politics … I’m friends with everybody. Not that I agree with everybody; that’s not important. What’s important is to have some integrity and get some collaboration around core issues.”

Have you had a chance to spend any time in the laboratory?

“Far less than before.  Although I am working on a couple of large proposals in Israel, my research time is very limited. The Nobel Prize is more or less a ticket to do whatever you want. And you have to make a decision. Many Nobel laureates decide to enlarge their labs, get more funding, more students and do more science. And that’s a good decision.”

“I decided to do things differently. I aspire to inspire before I expire. I lecture around the world. I gladly accept invitations to talk at universities and conferences to as many people as possible. I talk about science, technological entrepreneurship (see his lecture at Iowa State) and education and its importance. And I try to do something about it.”

“I’ve started a pilot program in Haifa to teach science to 60 kindergarteners this year and it will expand to 250 next year. And I’ve been asked by several countries to do the same.”

What do you teach them?

“Real science. Real physics. Forces in nature … gravity, magnetism, applied force. I teach them about matter; solids, liquids and gas, molecular structure. I want them to understand the planets and the universe and that we’re not the center of the universe. They should learn about development of plants and animals, the functions of the main parts of our own human bodies; the heart, the lungs, the brain, the muscles.”

“Some people think that five-year-olds can’t learn science. But their brains are like a sponge; they absorb everything you tell them. They are very smart. So we should use this time to really teach them. Of course they should still have time to play and just be kids. But once a day, teach them a little science and hopefully plant that seed so they go on to become engineers and scientists.”

“I also want them to talk to their parents about what they study. So the parents will have a sheet from the teacher that explains this is what we talked about this week. It won’t work everywhere, but the parents can add to the information.  It’s an excellent way to encourage children and parents to talk.”

Are you involved directly?

“I started it, my name is on the project and I made sure everything works. The Ministry of Education is involved and they do it. In Ukraine, I was involved personally, demonstrating in one class of 50 five-year-olds. My lesson was the structure of matter – atoms and molecules and how they’re arranged in solids, liquids and gas and phase transformations.”

“Each child was an atom and they clung to me and each other to form a solid. And they held together very tightly, illustrating the forces between atoms. And they understood that as a solid, nothing can go through. And in a liquid, they dispersed. And in gas, they were molecules of H2O, two girls to every boy, and I told them to move about freely, and they started to jump up and down spontaneously, which was wonderful.”

“We talked about it before and after. I took a jar of ice cubes – they know about ice in Ukraine – and showed them how upon heating the solid turns to liquid as it melts and then to steam as it boils. So they looked differently at phenomena that they already know about.”

“What I need to do now is write the curriculum. I want to write three curricula – one for biology, one for Mother Earth, the cosmos, the planets, universe, and the third one is physics.  They need also to realize there are quantitative values to things. Be able to estimate distances, volume, weight and how to measure them. Learn to think in rational, logical terms and question what those things tell you… explain it to me – why do you say that?  If I achieve that, we have a better world!”

Has the whole Nobel experience been what you imagined it would be?

“It’s been so overwhelming; I could never have imagined it. The opportunity that’s been placed in my hands to talk to so many people all around the world is amazing. And it’s not that I talk only to the educated. In Brazil, I visited a favela (slum) in both Rio de Janiero and Sao Paolo. And I talked to little kids who were naked except for the pants or shorts they wore … no shoes or shirts. I talked to them and hugged them.”

“In the favela in Sao Paolo, a local television crew was interviewing me, and as I talked with them, two of the children clung to me and I hugged them spontaneously. After the interview, I left, but they stayed and interviewed one of the children, a five-year-old, that I had hugged. And they asked him, ‘What did you learn?’ And he told them with gleaming eyes, ‘Oh, I must study very hard … I want to be like him!’ This is a nearly naked, five-year-old in a favela. And I understand the segment ended up on national television.”

How have your wife and family dealt with the fame?

“My wife, who’s a (University of Haifa) professor, comes along with me as she’s able to; whenever she wants and can. She’s always invited. She traveled with me this year to Singapore, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, and Los Angeles. Two of our four children live in California so we visited them and then she went back to Israel and I came on to Ames.”

“Every two years, we gather the whole family for a vacation. Our other two children live in Israel so we get everyone together so the grandchildren will not forget each other.   Last year, we took a cruise, so all of us were on a ship together. A couple of years ago, we rented a resort in Israel and before that, we rented a house in Washington state.”

Will you continue your connection with Iowa State and Ames Laboratory, and particularly the new Critical Materials Institute?

“It’s basically the same as before and I’d like to keep that arrangement as long as I’m able to. I’ve been here about a month this latest trip. Both Iowa State and the Technion understand that I have travel obligations. But Iowa State is part of all my presentations, as is the Technion.”

“I haven’t really spoken to Alex (King) about the new Critical Materials Institute, but absolutely, I’m interested in it. My research is development of new alloys … that’s what I’ve done for about the past 25 years. I have used rare earths in some of those alloys so I’d like to work on developing alternatives for those.” 

“I plan to be back in Ames this summer for a time so maybe I’ll know more then.”