Prof. Dan Shechtman, Nobel Prize recipient 2011, with the quasi-crystal. Photo by Sasha Flit with courtesy of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology

My mother had called from the States to tell me that she was going in for surgery. She wasn’t very clear over the phone about her diagnosis but I could hear the fear in her voice. I assured her I would come home to help her. At the time, I had been teaching at the American International School in Israel for six months.

A few days later, with bag packed and ticket in hand, I took a cab to Ben Gurion Airport for my flight to Boston.

It was a very long flight, so I often got up and walked the cabin to stretch my legs. It was about two hours into the flight when I took my first lap around the cabin and noticed there were lots of Israelis on the plane. I passed a gentleman about my age in the aisle. He was also stretching. We greeted each other and then became engaged in conversation. The seat next to him was empty and he invited me to join him so we could continue to talk.

Once settled in, he told me that he was a scientist and that he worked in Haifa at the Technion Institute. He then began to tell me about a five-sided crystal that he had discovered in 1982. He said that it was not possible for this crystal to exist in nature but the more he worked the experiments the more he was convinced that his discovery was right. He told me that he sat on it for a few years for he did not have the courage to present it to the scientific community.

I asked him what this mysterious five-sided crystal looked like and he sketched it in my phone book that was in my purse at the time.

The more he shared about this crystal the more excited I became, for even though I was no chemistry scholar, I knew he had discovered something quite extraordinary.

The conversation was so interesting that the time passed quickly and soon we were landing in Boston. Before leaving the plane we exchanged contact information. About a year later, he called to say he would be in Waltham, Massachusetts for some meetings and would it be possible to share dinner together. I told him I was free and would be delighted to join him.

It was a cold, rainy, late afternoon when I collected him but there were warm greetings as we were happy to see each other again. Over dinner I asked lots of questions and found myself fascinated all over again as he brought me up to date with his research.

As time passed we lost contact, but I would still wonder about his five-sided crystal.

On the afternoon of October 5, 2011, I was driving home and listening to the radio. I heard the announcement that Dan Shechtman, a professor from the Technion Institute of Technology in Israel, had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of the five-sided crystal now known as a “quasicrystal”.

I pulled off to the side of the road and turned up the volume. I could not believe it! He was finally being recognized for all his work and courage. I was beyond elated. I wanted to jump up and down, like the cheerleader I had been in my younger days. I could not wait to get home to write him and give him my enthusiastic congratulations.

As the news continued to come out about his Nobel Prize, I began to realize what had happened to him and his discovery. It was as he had thought. The scientific community did not accept his findings but ridiculed him for it. He was also expelled from his research team.

I now understand why he spoke about courage that day on the plane, and this new awareness leaves me with an even greater respect for his commitment and fortitude.

My mother’s surgery turned out to be minor, for which I was grateful, and the caring administration and staff at the school continued to ask about her health until I left Israel in 1986. I was also grateful to have had the opportunity to meet a remarkable, humble, kind, courageous scientist whose contribution to humanity has just been recognized. 

Footnote:

Louise Leger presented the story to her writing group on October 6, 2001. Says Louise: “My writing group takes place monthly in Sudbury, Massachusetts where I have spent most of my teaching career. The group was started in 2000. There are twelve women in the group, many of whom are very talented writers. Some are writing memoirs for their children, others are writing poetry or fiction. We all love being together and have grown over these past years to admire and appreciate each other as our lives get revealed through our writings. When I joined the group, I had no confidence as a writer....but I thought it would be a good time to write my convent stories....and more.” 

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