"People I barely knew slapped me on the back and said 'you really showed the world something special at Entebbe! Good show!' I had never been to Entebbe or served in the Israeli special forces. But you know, it did feel pretty good and I said 'Thank you very much,' as if I had something to do with it!"
And I remember reading about Gal Friedman, the windsurfer who won Israel's first Olympic gold medal while I was on vacation in Mexico. I was filled with pride and excitement. Why? I don't follow wind surfing. I was barely paying attention to the Olympics. If Friedman hadn't medaled I doubt I would ever have heard of him.
So it shouldn't be surprising that reading about an Israeli winning the Nobel prize in chemistry would thrill me. It should thrill you too. And not just because he is an Israeli and Jew. It should thrill you because Daniel Schectman's story is a lesson to us as educators and parents. I will discuss it at the bottom of this posting. Here is the story from Israelli: The New Blog of Israel:
From Disbelief and Ridicule
To Winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
It was a German philosopher who famously said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Time and time again, great scientific minds see this process in action, as Israeli scientist Daniel Schectman lived it first hand over the last three decades. In April 1982, Professor Schectman made a dramatic discovery, one which has now rewritten chemistry textbooks and finally earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
But his road to acceptance, let alone recognition, was not easy. In 1982, Schectman looked under his electron microscope and saw that the crystal he had formed stood in direct violation with the accepted laws of nature.
Atomic model of an Ag-Al
Until recently, it was believed that every crystal contains a unique pattern of the arrangement of atoms, a pattern that repeats itself perfectly and consistently. Almost any solid material, from ice to gold, is made up of ordered crystals. What the Israeli professor found that spring day is a pattern that was once thought impossible, proving that atoms could be packed into a pattern which did not repeat itself. The crystals were named by subsequent researchers as “quasi crystals,” but that didn’t stop Professor Schectman from being ridiculed as a “qausi-scientist.” One of his coworkers even presented him with a basic-level textbook on crystallography, suggesting he read it.
“His discovery was extremely controversial. In the course of defending his findings, he was asked to leave his research group,” said the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which announced the award earlier Wednesday morning.
“However, his battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter,” it added in a statement. “Scientists are currently experimenting with using quasi crystals in different products such as frying pans and diesel engines.”
In a poetic note, understanding the Israeli scientist’s research was aided by analysis of Islamic architecture, specifically the arabesque style. The beautiful mosaics which dominated the Middle Ages across the Near-East are of the same mathematically regular but infinitely varied patterns as the quasi crystal.
Ten years after Professor Schectman’s findings, the International Union of Crystallography changed their definition of what a crystal actually is, removing the idea that the atoms must be packed in a “regularly ordered, repeating three-dimensional pattern.”
Today, quasi crystals are not only accepted as truth, but are seen as miracle compounds, having been used in, among others, ultra-strong thin needles used for delicate eye surgery.
“The main lesson that I have learned over time is that a good scientist is a humble and listening scientist and not one that is sure 100 percent in what he read in the textbooks,” said Shechtman at a news conference Wednesday at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel.
In addition to the Technion, Schectman is also a a professor at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.
The Nobel Prize, perhaps the most prestigious award anyone could ever receive, has now been awarded 10 times to Israelis, a source of tremendous pride for such a small nation. The prize (10 million kronor, or $1.5 million USD)
Said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “I would like to congratulate you, on behalf of the citizens of Israel, for your award, which expresses the intellect of our people. Every Israeli is happy today and every Jew in the world is proud. I also congratulated your institution, the Technion, on the centenary of its founding.”
Who's the Maccabee?
When we teach the Chanukah story, we almost always put ourselves in the role of the Maccabees. Of course as liberal Reform Jews, you might argue that we are more like the Hellenizing Jews who sided with the Greeks in what was really more of a civil war fought by proxy. Mattathias was a religious fundamentalist who wanted to get everyone back on the same path. Yet most Jews think of ourselves as Maccabees, and our opponents are outsiders, not fellow Jews. I mention this because the next bit also depends on your perspective.
So the lesson of Daniel Schectman - as I see it - is that we have to be open to possibilities. We have to consider that what we have always "known" might be an incomplete picture of our world. One might argue that Schectman suggests that everything we know is not true. I suspect he would say that we have to be careful about hard we cling to things - if that clinging prevents us from exploring more possibilities. I may be putting words in his mouth, but I don't think he is interested in tossing out all chemical knowledge that preceded him. He just found something scientists didn't think possible and wants us to make room for it in our understanding of the world and to make use of that idea to advance the species.
Some colleagues suggest that maintaining synagogues and religious schools as we know them is like those chemists who clung to the old definition of crystals. Some suggest that the future is all about digital media and using books in our schools is archaic. They suggest tossing it all out and starting over with new models of community, and creating new modalities of learning, with particular focus on digital technology. They claim to be the Maccabees.
Other colleagues suggest that there is nothing wrong with the way things are. They see the calls for new models and technology as distractions from Torah. They claim that the Jewish community could never afford the hardware and the software, and that too few people are able to teach with it. They claim to be the Maccabees.
The Anatevka Model
I want to suggest a third path. Call it the Anatevka Model. I am sure you recall Anatevka as the mythical shtletl that was home to Tevye the milk man written by Sholom Aleichem. In Fiddler on the Roof (the musical made from the Tevye stories), two people are arguing. As each makes his case, Tevye says "You're right!" A third person comes along and says "He's right, and he's right? They can't both be right." Tevye answers "You know, you are also right."
We need technology. We need a new economic paradigm for synagogues. We need new ways of teaching and learning. We also need books. Lots of them. We need people to be in relationship with one another - as colleagues, as teachers and students. We need them to be a community that is both real and virtual.
My question is: "for one of us to be right, must the other be wrong?"
Will I continue to introduce technological paths for learning in my school? Of course. My learners want it, need it and demand it. We have classroom blogs. We Skype with our Israeli partners. We use a SmartBoard. We will have iPads and/or Netbooks. We use social media, YouTube, Animoto and PhotoPeach.
Will I continue to use textbooks from the Jewish publishers? Yup. The ones that are engaging and visually interesting. The ones that my teachers can use as a scaffold for building lessons. Do I want our students surfing the web to learn things about their Jewish world? Yes. But sometimes it is a good idea to have the basic information and images at hand in a book, so the conversation flow between people rather than moderated through a screen.
At the same time, the fact that learners of all ages are attracted to to the technology means that the digital tools can help us get the learners to commit more time to the work of Jewish learning - outside the classroom. And that adds up to a victory in the time wars we have been fighting for years. And some of the publishers are creating digital connections to the material in their books. Win. Win. Give me more.
I do not believe we will jettison the models we have. I don't think we should. At the same time, the models we have cannot stay static. Jewish living and learning needs to grow, change, adapt and evolve to the needs of our people. That is what is has done for thousands of years. David didn't live and learn like Moses' children. Hillel's experience was radically different from David's. Ours is different from Rashi's and Rambam's. Our children's experience is different from our own.
If you only have a hammer, every problem is a nail.
I still believe that many of the best teachable moments are between a teacher and a student, or a camper and counselor or a parent and a child. The tools we need to be effective are whichever one is right for the moment. Digital is not better. It can be great. Analog is not better. It can be awesome. We need a full toolkit and the ability to develop and adopt more tools all the time.
Thank you Daniel Schectman. You taught us we can all be Maccabees. We just need to see the possibilities.
Cross posted to Davar Acher