Too Small to See? A Nobel for 3 Who Pioneered

By Shlomo Maital

  Nobel chemisry

The 2014 Nobel Prize for chemistry was won by two Americans and a German: Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner. Their work greatly extended our vision into the smallest of molecules, in part enabling nanotechnology.

     Hell, born in Romania, heads a Max Planck Institute in Gottingen, Germany. Moerner is from Stanford University; and Betzig, from the Howard Hughes Institute in Virginia.

   According to CNN: “Back in 1873, science believed it had reached a limit in how much more of a detailed picture a microscope could provide. At the time, microscopist Ernst Abbe said the maximum resolution had been attained.”   As with so many Nobel prizes, the three winners simply did not accept the statement, “we’ve reached the limit —   no more can be done.”

   The three scientists, according to the Nobel Prize Committee, did this: “….Due to their achievements, the optical microscope can now peer into the nanoworld,” the committee said.   “The importance can’t be overemphasized: Now, scientists can see how proteins in fertilized eggs divide into embryos, or they can track proteins involved in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases.”    

   Betzig and Moerner found a way to make single molecules ‘glow’ using fluorescent microscopy.   Hell found a way to use two laser beams to make the molecules glow.   This is creative thinking. Rather than conventionally illuminate molecules with photons, why not make the molecules themselves into little ‘lamps’?

     “Guesswork has turned into hard facts and obscurity has turned into clarity,” the Nobel Committee added.   The work of the three has “blurred the boundary between chemistry and biology”, by enabling us to see right inside single molecules.

   Thank you, scientists!