Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal ArtsNomina
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ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Dan Shechtman from a family of ukrainian immigrants – 2011 Nobel prize laureate in chemistry

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Dan Shechtman from a family of ukrainian immigrants - 2011 Nobel prize laureate in chemistry
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There are a lot of Nobel laureates with Ukrainian roots – it was written about them here. But they all became Americans or Israelis – only Mechnikov is an exception, and he got his prize in France. 

It is possible, of course, to say that Ukraine is a young country, it is only 30 years old, the time will come – there will be Nobel Prize winners. But let’s compare our country, for example, with Israel. In the thirtieth year of the existence of this state, there were already two Nobel Prize winners in it, and one of them was our fellow countryman Shmuel Agnon.

It is despite the fact that Israel, for all its dense population, is tiny, and its inhabitants are now about 9 million, and we have 41 (according to the 2001 census – 48 and a half, so far it is the dynamics). Where are our 8.5 Nobel Prize winners to equal their number per capita?

However, the winners of Nobel Prize are an accident. But the fact that Ukraine’s GDP (a concept introduced into science by our fellow countryman Simon Kuznets, by the way) is now about $ 13,100 per capita, and Israel’s GDP is about  $ 43,600 – it is objectively very offensive and says a lot.

By the way, there are not two Nobel Prize winners in Israel now, but ten. The last four of them are chemists. And the most recent winner, awarded in 2011, is also a descendant of our fellow countryman. There are many of them in Israel, but not everyone received the Nobel Prize. It’s worth telling about him…




“Zeev” in Hebrew means wolf. So, it is quite logical that a native of the town of Bila Tserkov, Wolf Zeylikovich Poberezhkin, having moved to Palestine at the age of 22, took the name Zeev (“Wolf” means the same in Yiddish). And why did he choose the surname Ashur, that is, Assyrian, it’s hard to say…

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Dan Shechtman from a family of ukrainian immigrants - 2011 Nobel prize laureate in chemistry
Bila Tserkov

From a young age he chose the profession of a printer, but he was not limited to it – he became a member of the Jewish Social Democratic Party Poale Zion and, in addition, a Zionist, which is not surprising for an immigrant. He actively participated in the work of the party, even organized strikes.

But his wife, the artist Shoshana Kotlyar, a student of the famous sculptor Boris Schatz, he met at the Bezalel Academy of Arts created by Schatz, which means that his interests were not limited to politics. A daughter, Natania, was born in this marriage. Later she married a repatriate from the USSR, Yitzhak Shechtman, a printer by profession, like his father-in-law.

In 1941, Yitzhak and Natania had a son, Dan, the hero of our article. Someone may have uttered the popular curse, “May you live in interesting times!” Early childhood – world war, a little later – the Arab-Israeli war. He could have been born at another time!




His life did not seem too easy for him, Dan’s parents added spice to it. They divorced when he was still a teenager. The divorce of parents did not promise anything joyful to any child, but if they are intelligent people, the harm from it could be small.

So, in this case, all these storms of life did not prevent Dan Shechtman from getting a quality education – first in Bat Yam, then in Petah Tikva. And after school, he was able to get into the university, which was called the pride of Israel more than once – the Technion in Haifa.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Dan Shechtman from a family of ukrainian immigrants - 2011 Nobel prize laureate in chemistry

At the dawn of the existence of this university, in 1923, Albert Einstein visited it. A palm tree planted by Einstein still grows on its territory. When Hitler came to power, Einstein helped to organize the relocation of a number of prominent Jewish scientists to Haifa, who seriously raised the level of teaching there, and participated in raising funds for the development of the university.

Dan studied, as befits a promising student, carefully and efficiently, passing stage by stage in his scientific career. In 1966, he received a bachelor’s degree from the Technion, just two years later he defended his master’s thesis, and four years later he became the Doctor of Sciences.




Shechtman chose a scientific specialty, far from a popularity, which scientific disciplines sometimes acquire practically against their will – metal science and crystallography. Crystallographers are rarely interviewed, their work is rarely discussed on social networks, but the practical benefits of their work are undeniable every day.

After defending his doctorate, he trained for three years in the United States, studying titanium aluminides, then began teaching at the Technion (everyone praises him as a brilliant lecturer), then during the sabbatic year (there is such a form of sabbatical in Western universities when you quit your main job to master something new) studied aluminum alloys.

The result was the discovery of new substances called quasicrystals, the existence of which was considered unthinkable in classical crystallography. The discoveries made by him back in 1982 were denied by Linus Pauling, the winner of two Nobel Prizes. 

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Dan Shechtman from a family of ukrainian immigrants - 2011 Nobel prize laureate in chemistry
Linus Pauling

However, the facts are sometimes stronger than the authority of the twice Nobel Prize winner. Shechtman’s research received a mathematical foundation, and in 1992 it was even necessary to change the physical definition of a crystal in order for the theory to cease contradicting the actually observed facts.

Quasicrystals, as it turned out, really exist! They are hard and brittle, poorly conducts electricity and heat, practically nothing sticks to them, so they are useful both for converting heat into electricity and for making non-stick pans.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Dan Shechtman from a family of ukrainian immigrants - 2011 Nobel prize laureate in chemistry
Quasicrystal symmetry

First, quasicrystals were obtained in the laboratory by fusing a number of metals under certain conditions. And in 2009, natural quasicrystals containing iron, copper and aluminum were also found in mineral samples from the river of Khatyrka in Chukotka.




The Nobel Prize, unfortunately, always turns out to be too late. Shechtman had already managed to become a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (1996), a member of the US National Academy of Technical Sciences (2000), a member of the European Academy of Sciences – and only then the award was finally presented to the academician three times.

Quasicrystals have unique properties. They have low thermal conductivity, their resistance decreases with increasing temperature, while in ordinary metals it increases. Now they are already in full use in the aviation and the automotive industries as alloying additives.

Doubts about the reality of quasicrystals have gone into the realm of legends and have become a historical curiosity. How can you doubt what is actively demanded by production? Quasicrystals have been noticed, appreciated, and considered a paramount scientific achievement.

In 2011, doubts ended forever with the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Dan Shechtman. It was his turn to come to Stockholm on December 10, put on a tailcoat, receive the Nobel medal personally from the hands of the Swedish king, and deliver a speech at the mayor’s office.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Dan Shechtman from a family of ukrainian immigrants - 2011 Nobel prize laureate in chemistry
Nobel Medal in Chemistry


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Dan Shechtman is a man of very broad interests, very far from the image of a scientist in an armchair, popular in cheap comics. Politicians are usually alien to office scientists, and Shechtman ran only for the presidency of Israel in 2014.

However, he was not elected. In Israel, the president is not elected by the people, but by the Knesset, and only one of 120 parliamentarians voted for him. It did not surprise anyone: party interests in such cases are above others and do not allow voting for someone who is not a member of any party.

Shechtman was not very surprised and even more disappointed. He understood that his opinion as the president should protect the interests of the whole country, and not one party. Representatives of these very parties were confident in the opposite. But he finds his experience useful.

To the question: “Why did you want to become the president of Israel?” he replied, “For the only reason – to change our education system. After becoming the president, I could have a stronger influence on the situation in education”. Shechtman considers this position to be fundamentally important for the country.




Shechtman believes that the current status of the teaching profession and its low prestige are a threat to the country. The reason for it is simple – a teacher’s salary, frankly, is not high. And bad teachers are bad news. They can spoil an entire generation. The teaching profession is the number 1 profession for any country, since its future depends on teachers.

He cites research by Professor Eric Hanushek of Stanford University. It showed that if a teacher is paid a salary above the average, then his students will receive a better education, will enter good universities, will create new startups, in which many people will earn good money and pay taxes, which will cover teachers’ salaries.

Moreover, if a teacher is paid a salary below the average, then he will cause damage to the economy, much more than saving on teacher salaries. Shechtman agrees that there are idealists and great professionals among teachers, but it is not the case for many.

He finds it alarming that the majority of teachers in schools are women. They can afford to bring a lower salary to the family than their husbands – such are the traditions. But how much such a paradigm costs everyone around, we do not count – otherwise we would be horrified…

These are the non-standard thoughts expressed by Dan Shechtman about the formation of Israel. Does it have anything to do with our country? Maybe we are doing well, and the teachers are respected people with high incomes in society. If so, then everything is fine. If not, should we think about it too?




Shechtman is a supporter and a defender of the new science. For example, in 2016 he signed an open letter from a number of Nobel laureates urging Greenpeace, the United Nations and governments around the world to finally end the fight against GMOs.

I am not afraid to say that he is absolutely right, because, in the words of Zhvanetsky, “it is not a struggle, and they are not results”. When on bottles of mineral water and packs of salt, in which GMOs cannot be, they write: “Without GMOs”. What do they mean? Who knows?

Another sympathy for Shechtman is startups, especially high-tech ones. “Strengthening technological entrepreneurship requires the development of human ingenuity”. In Russia, he said, “Your main resource is not oil, but brains”. Will they hear him? It would be good…

He says, “Many people fear that robots will replace humans and that they will be out of work”. I answer them, “Look at unemployment in undeveloped countries – 50%. There are no robots. Look at developed countries. In my country, it is 4.5%. The more automation, the more developed the country, the lower the unemployment rate. Robots don’t take jobs, they provide them”.

He also said, “Cultural prejudices are especially strong in the countries of the East. In these cultures, failure is considered a disgrace to the individual and his family. And I say, “Failure is normal. Start again”. Take a one-year-old baby. He begins to walk, falls, gets up and falls again. After a week he walks, and after two you cannot catch him”. But it’s true…

The professor also touched upon the issues of initial capital for startups. “Never create a company with your own money, that is, do not sell a car or an apartment. Don’t take money from friends or parents. Startups can get funding thanks to business angels, strategic partners, venture funds”. This advice is often born out in practice.




So far, Dan Shechtman is happy with his life. He states, “In some areas of my life I have achieved 100% success, for example, in my family life. I have 12 grandchildren, four children and one wife”. They even asked him, “One wife for all your life?” He replied, “Yes, and everything is fine!”

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Dan Shechtman from a family of ukrainian immigrants - 2011 Nobel prize laureate in chemistry
Dan Shechtman with his family

In other areas, he admits, “I have failed several times in business. Or rather, it didn’t succeed. I have founded several companies and have never lost money in any of them. However, I closed some of them, and sold others at an early stage, without earning anything. But without losing anything!” I will add that all people have earned a lot from his discoveries.

He is a bearer of so many high scientific titles and a laureate of so many prestigious awards that I will not even list them. You still will not remember anything except the Nobel Prize, and it costs nothing to find this information on the Internet.

Since 2014, he has been the head of the International Scientific Council of Tomsk Polytechnic University, and since 2016 he is a foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He also came to Ukraine and performed very interestingly. Is it worth losing to neighbors in attracting such a bright name? The country of origin of his grandfather and grandmother cannot turn out to be strange and unloved for him …

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Dan Shechtman from a family of ukrainian immigrants - 2011 Nobel prize laureate in chemistry
Shechtman performs in Dnipro


All illustrations are from open sources

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