Heinrich Rohrer, Father of Nanotechnology, Dies at 79

Heinrich Rohrer, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics, passed away last week at the age of 79

The first scanning tunneling microscope ever made.
The first scanning tunneling microscope ever made. Pieter Kuiper

Heinrich Rohrer, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics, passed away last week at the age of 79. Rohrer is widely regarded as one of the founding scientists of the nanotechnology field.

In his Nobel Prize announcement, the Nobel Prize committee called out “his fundamental work in electron optics and for the design of the first electron microscope.” The electron microscope is what let scientists see viruses and IBM make this little animation. Here’s Physics World on how the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) works:

An STM creates an image of the surface of a sample by scanning an atomically sharp tip over its surface. The tip is held less than one nanometre from the surface and a voltage is applied so that electrons can undergo quantum-mechanical tunnelling between tip and surface. The tunnelling current is strongly dependent on the tip–surface separation and this is used in a feedback loop to keep the tip the same distance from the surface. An image is obtained by scanning the tip across the surface to create a topographical map in which individual atoms can be seen.

The patent for the STM has a bit more detail on how the process works. The New York Times writes that it wasn’t originally clear that Rohrer’s research would go anywhere at all:

The scientists’ colleagues at I.B.M. were skeptical of the project. As Dr. Rohrer recalled, “They all said, ‘You are completely crazy — but if it works you’ll get the Nobel Prize.’ ”

For inventing the STM, Rohrer didn’t just get the Nobel Prize. He was also awarded the German Physics Prize, the Otto Klung Prize, the Hewlett Packard Europhysics Prize, the King Faisal Prize and the Cresson Medal. His invention also got him inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame. That’s because the STM allows scientists to look at the arrangement of the atoms on a surface and move atoms around. Seeing this atomic level and being able to study and manipulate it allowed scientists to develop modern forms of nanotechnology.

Rohrer was born in Buchs, Switzerland, on June 6th, 1933, half an hour after his twin sister. Rohrer wasn’t planning on going into physics, he writes in his autobiography:

My finding to physics was rather accidental. My natural bent was towards classical languages and natural sciences, and only when I had to register at the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in autumn 1951, did I decide in favor of physics.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Medicine Goes Small
Can Nanotechnology Save Lives?

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