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Tag archives: scanning tunnelling microscope

Which Nobel-prize-winning physics invention has had the most profound impact on society?

By James Dacey

Lightbulb and fibre optics

Physics has brought transformative inventions. (Courtesy: iStockphoto/Péter Mács)

Earlier this week my colleague reported the death of Heinrich Rohrer, the Swiss condensed-matter physicist who shared the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physics for the invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) at IBM’s Zürich Research Laboratory. Rohrer shared one half of the prize with his IBM colleague Gerd Binnig, while the other half went to the West German Ernst Ruska for his invention of the electron microscope (EM).

By bringing into view the atomic world, EMs and STMs have undoubtedly had a huge impact on science. Before their invention, optical microscopy had been a truly transformative technology. But it had been fundamentally limited to seeing things that are (roughly speaking) larger than the wavelength of the light used to produce the image. And since the wavelength of visible light is some 10,000 times larger than the typical distance between two atoms, we could not see individual atoms.

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