Two Americans and one German won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry on Wednesday, including a professor from Stanford University.
The Pleasanton-born William Moerner was in Brazil when his wife got the phone call, announcing that he'd won “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.”
Reached at his Brazilian hotel by NBC Bay Area via Skype, he was all smiles.
Then he tried to break down in layman's terms his years of complicated research.
"What I did was detect individual molecules just one instead of the billions and billions that you'd have to average over," he said. "That turns out to be very critical because if you look inside a cell for example you want to see how the little machines are working and moving inside a cell. One of the challenges is that the machines are really tiny. However if you can look at an individual molecule, that is like a light source inside the cell, and so that light source is a way to measure the shapes and motions of how things move inside the cell."
According to the Nobel Prize organization, Eric Betzig and William Moerner, working separately, laid the foundation for a second method of study called single-molecule microscopy. The method relies upon the possibility to turn the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off. Scientists image the same area multiple times, letting just a few interspersed molecules glow each time. Superimposing these images yields a dense super-image resolved at the nanolevel.
While the award and the honor is great, Moerner's demeanor softened when he thought about what he wanted to pass on to the future generation of chemists.
"I really want to encourage young people to study math and science to learn how the world works and to think about how things actually behave," he said. "Ultimately, the only way we can push our world forward is by learning how things really work."
Then he stressed that he wanted students to "believe that anything is possible. At one point, what we were doing with microscopes was considered impossible."
Betzig works at the Janelia Farm Research Campus at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia.
The German winner is Stefan Hell, who works at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the German Cancer Research Center.
Today, nanoscopy is used world-wide and new knowledge of greatest benefit to mankind is produced on a daily basis.
Moerner has been at Stanford since 1998.