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Monday, October 10, 2011

30 years of rejection, one day of celebration

His work took thirty years to be recognized as valid, but last Wednesday Dan Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of non-repeating crystals. To those outside the chemistry world the actual work isn't terribly exciting, a scientist looked at some molecules through an electron microscope and saw something he didn't expect to see. Something that wasn't supposed to be possible. He saw crystals with a regular pattern that doesn't repeat. To put it another way, they are crystals that show symmetry when rotated one-fifth of a circle. That's not allowed.

When Dan shared his work with other scientists he was rebuffed. He was proposing that the very definition of what makes a crystal needed to be changed. Yet, he insisted. He showed the structure in different materials, he re-created his experiment and he kept stating what he knew to be true. It only took thirty years.

People like Dan are tough to emulate and easy to praise. His long-lived endurance in the face of the entire scientific community is beyond the limits of normal humans. We love stories like Dan's because it means that we might be right, even though everyone else says we're wrong. But we don't like the story that Dan had a year ago. That's the story of a man who spent twenty-nine years fighting for what he knew to be right, but without any fruit. That story is horrifying. That's the story we tell as a cautionary tale to college Freshmen who want to major in philosophy. You'll waste your life. You have to face reality some day. So many other people can't be wrong.

But what if they are?

What if you have the next revolution in chemistry locked in your brain? What if the next great novel is in there? What about the next great sermon? What if?

What if it takes you thirty years? What then? Do believe in it enough to keep going?

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