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Science & Environment

Chemistry Nobel Given To Scientists For Work On Optical Microscope


This year's Nobel Prize in chemistry goes to three scientists who have revolutionized the optical microscope. Working independently, they've figured out how to expand the frontiers of biology by allowing researchers to see far more clearly into living cells. And this isn't just a story of technology, but also of remarkable personalities.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Optical microscopes have a problem. For more than 100 years the dogma has been that you can't improve their resolution beyond a theoretical limit. You can't see anything much smaller than the wavelength of light you're shining on an object.

Stefan Hell was studying physics in Germany and was intrigued by this barrier, but his professors told him not to waste his time.

STEFAN HELL: This barrier has been around since 1873 and doing something about it is kind of crazy, not very realistic to do.

HARRIS: But Hell didn't take no for an answer. He exiled himself at a university in Finland and found a way around this problem. If the molecules you're studying produce their own light - if they fluoresce, then you can use that light to see much finer detail. That discovery has won Hell a share of this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry. Meanwhile, Eric Betzig was chewing on the same problem as a scientist at Bell Labs in New Jersey.

ERIC BETZIG: I worked on that for six years and started to realize the limitations of that technology and also kind of felt uncomfortable with academic science in general - particularly in applied technology. The hype exceeds the reality.

HARRIS: He gave up and went to work for his father, who owned a plant that made heavy equipment used in factories, but that was a bust.

BETZIG: A - I learned I was a bad businessman, but B - I learned that I missed science, even if I didn't miss academia.

HARRIS: So Betzig took a new run at this old problem with a close friend and they too started thinking about using glowing chemicals.

BETZIG: And the light bulbs immediately went on in our heads. And we said that's the missing link to make that idea that I had pitched 10 years before when I left Bell to work.

HARRIS: Betzig's friend and collaborator was Harald Hess. He'd also left Bell Labs and was now living in the California beach town of La Jolla. Hess says they turned his living room into their laboratory.

HARALD HESS: It was actually a very pleasant place. You know, we'd sort of play tennis maybe for part of the time then assemble the microscope for the other time.

HARRIS: They bought parts off of eBay and elsewhere on the Internet and Hess says the instrument ended up being quite affordable.

HESS: It was easy enough that we could just sort of self-fund it probably for less than the price of a new kitchen or anything like that.

BETZIG: It went from idea to quality data in six months.

HARRIS: Now, these guys were brilliant physicists so they knew how to make the microscope, but they didn't know how to make use of it. So they turned to a scientist they'd met at the National Institutes of Health near Washington.

BETZIG: She said hey, bring it here, which we needed because we didn't know any biology.

HARRIS: They set it up in the corner of her lab and rented a hotel room so they could hover nearby as biologists figured out how to make use of the instrument. Hess says their idea didn't make them rich, but that wasn't the point.

HESS: For the fun it was definitely worth it.

HARRIS: After this triumph, Betzig wanted to get back into a lab so he could further develop this microscope and others like it. One thing led to another and he was offered a job at a posh new laboratory being built by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Janelia Research Campus outside of Washington. Betzig took the job and has been there ever since. Hess eventually got a lab there, too.

And here's the twist in this story - Betzig won this year's Nobel Prize for their work but Hess did not. Nobels are only split three ways and the third share of this prize went to W.E. Moerner at Stanford University. He's honored for the pioneering work he'd done on the glowing molecules that make these microscopes possible.

Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.