Three researchers were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry today for breaking through what was thought to be an absolute optical limit in seeing microscopic objects like viruses and molecules.
The Nobel committee responsible for deciding the winners chose to honor the separate work of two Americans, Eric Betzig and William Moerner, and German Stefan Hell. These scientists pioneered what is called super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, which has opened up a whole new frontier for understanding how life works at the nanoscale. (Txchnologist has previously featured more of Betzig’s groundbreaking work here.) “I was sitting in my office when the call from Stockholm reached me,” said Hell, who is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry. “I am enormously gratified that my work and that of my colleagues has received the highest distinction for scientific research.” Their innovations, using light to excite molecules that have been tagged with fluorescent markers, are now being used around the world. They are letting researchers use visible light to glimpse separate objects that are closer together than what was thought to be the limit of 0.2 microns. This minimum is called the Abbe diffraction limit, which is half the length of the wavelength of the light used to see something through a microscope.