Dan Shechtman, an Israeli scientist, who’s this year’s Noble Prize winner in Chemistry, reminds me of Steve Jobs. In 1982, Shechtman discovered quasicrystals—matter that is made of atoms arranged in patterns that never repeat themselves. Prior to his discovery, it was thought that crystals could only be made up of atoms that are packed in symmetrical patterns that repeat themselves over and over. I won’t even pretend to understand most of the details, but there is a fascinating description on the Nobel site that describes this in detail.
However fascinating this is, it is not what grabbed my attention about the Nobel laureate. After his discovery, he found that instead of being honored, he was at the beginning of a fierce battle against established science. He recalls in an interview on NPR how he was booted from his research group. “The head of his research team said, ‘You are a disgrace to our group, and I cannot bear this disgrace.’ And he asked me to leave the group. So, I left the group,” said Shechtman. The double Nobel laureate of the time, Linus Pauling, led a fierce crusade against him stating, “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” He was accused of a making a huge blunder and was the laughing stock of the scientific world for two years. He fought back, refused to take a back seat to his critics and the rest is history.
While many would argue that Steve Jobs is in a different league, I see similarities between the two men. They share a passion for their work, unyielding optimism that what they are doing is right, and the drive to continue despite their critics. Who can forget the years that Jobs was not everyone’s darling while Bill Gates was at the top of the heap? Or the fact that he was pushed out of Apple in 1985 because of disappointing sales? Or the early days of NeXT where the startup was close to bankruptcy? Many of the Jobs’ quotes talk about the necessity of marching to a different drummer and having the courage to follow one’s heart, brain, and convictions. And possibly, it is this personality that separates most of us from the enlightened.