On Wednesday the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was being awarded to a trio of scientists, Eric Betzig and William Moerner from the United States and Germany’s Stefan Hell, for their work in advancing the visible scope of microscopes.
The groundbreaking results accomplished what was believed to be beyond the fundamental law of optics known as the diffraction limit, which stated that with a microscope, the resolution cannot be greater than the wavelength of light being looked at. With the combined efforts of the three scientists, the laws of physics may not have been broken, but a work around was discovered that allowed the law to be circumvented.
Dr. Hell began his work on solving this problem in 1990 while finishing his doctorate at the University of Heidelberg and three years later had to continue his efforts in Finland after failing to find financing in Germany. After publishing his theoretical proposal, it was available for other scientists to pick up and test it out, but no one took on the challenge.
“I was a sort of nobody in those days. I didn’t even have a lab, really. People could have taken it as a recipe, could have done it. But they didn’t do it,” Dr. Hell said in an interview. “Why didn’t they do it? Because they thought it wouldn’t work that way.”
Around the time Dr. Hell successfully put his idea into practice in 1999, Dr. Moerner and Dr. Betzig were working on their own scientific advancements in finding ways to study biology on the smallest scale. The three scientists eventually got together to combine their individual findings to implement a method to now use microscopes to look at the most minuscule structures of a living cell.
The three scientists will be officially awarded the prize in Stockholm, Sweden on December 10 and will split a $1.1 million prize.