from the January 2012 issue

The Nobel Prize

Daniel Morgenstern

The Nobel Prize is the world's most prestigious prize. Among prizes awarded for science a separate peace prize is awarded. Ironically, Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite. This year's prize in physics was awarded to Israel's physicist Dan Schechtman.

The Nobel Prize, award is given for outstanding achievement in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, peace, or literature. The awards were established by the will of Alfred Nobel, who left a fund to provide annual prizes in the five areas listed above. These prizes were first given in 1901. Each prize consists of a gold medal, a sum of money, and a diploma with the citation of award. The amount of money available for each prize varies from year to year. The Nobel Prizes are awarded without regard to nationality; the judges are, by the terms of Nobel's will, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (physics and chemistry, as well as economic science), the Swedish Royal Caroline Medico-Surgical Institute (physiology or medicine), the Swedish Academy (literature), and a committee elected by the Norwegian parliament (peace). The awards are made on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death, the Peace Prize being presented in Oslo and the others in Stockholm. A prize is sometimes shared; several times the Nobel Peace Prize has been given to an organization. There may be one or more years in which a prize or prizes may not be awarded; this has happened most often with the Peace Prize.

Shechtman experienced several years of hostility toward his non-periodic interpretation (no less a figure than Linus Pauling said "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.". Pauling was apparently unaware of a paper in 1981 by H. Kleinert and K. Maki which had pointed out the possibility of a non-periodic Icosahedral Phase in quasicrystals (see the historical notes). The head of Shechtman's research group told him to "go back and read the textbook" and then "asked him to leave for 'bringing disgrace' on the team." Shechtman felt rejected. Later, [when?] other scientists began to confirm and accept empirical findings of the existence of quasicrystals.

The Nobel Committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said that "his discovery was extremely controversial," but that his work "eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter." Through Shechtman's discovery, several other groups were able to form similar quasicrystals, [when?] finding these materials to have low thermal and electrical conductivity, while possessing high structural stability. Quasicrystals have also been found naturally.

Quasicrystalline materials could be used in a large number of applications, including the formation of durable steel used for fine instrumentation, and non-stick insulation for electrical wires and cooking equipment.

Israel is among countries who have won the most prizes per capita. Of the ten prizes won, five were in the fields of science.

Reprinted from the Israel High-Tech & Investment Report January 2012

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