The Kavli Prize Presents: Understanding Atoms [Sponsored]

This podcast was produced for the Kavli Prize by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from the magazine’s board of editors.

Megan Hall: Today’s nanoscience wouldn’t be possible without the work of Dr. Gerd Binnig. He and his colleagues invented the first tools to see and manipulate objects as small as an atom.

In 1986 Dr. Binnig shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for the design of the scanning tunneling microscope and later, in 2016, he shared the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience for the invention of the atomic force microscope. Both discoveries had a transformative impact on nanoscience.

Scientific American Custom Media, in partnership with the Kavli Prize, reconnected with Gerd to discuss how his work made it possible to see and create the things that once only existed in our imaginations.

Before Gerd Binnig came along, scientists didn’t really know how atoms behave.

Gerd Binnig: There were lots of theories. And there were lots of indirect methods that try to observe matter on the atomic scale.

Hall: But no one could actually see those atoms. 

Binnig: If you can observe the atoms, you can test your theories, and you can come up with ideas. Otherwise, you’re completely blind, and you don’t know what you’re really doing.

Hall: So Gerd and his colleagues set out to build a machine that made those observations possible.

First, they invented something called the scanning tunneling microscope, or STM. It used electricity to create images of atoms.

Binnig: It certainly triggered the fantasy of many people: now, for the first time, you could look at the atomic structure of any kind of conducting material, and you can also shuffle atoms around and manipulate it.

Hall: While Gerd and his colleagues won a Nobel Prize for inventing the scanning tunneling microscope, he wasn’t satisfied. 

The STM could only work on surfaces that conduct electricity. He wanted to create a device that could work with atoms on other surfaces, too.

Binnig: I tortured my brain by asking this question. The STM is so successful, but it’s so limited. So I tortured my brain. And then it came up with logical ideas again and again. And they were all crazy and would not work.

Hall: But Gerd says as he was torturing his brain with logic, his subconscious was working in the background.

Binnig: It always follows what I’m thinking. And suddenly, it spit out a solution.

Hall: It happened while Gerd was laying on the couch and looking up at his ceiling.

Binnig: You can sometimes look into the clouds and see something that’s not there. You can see a horse or whatever. And that’s what I did. I saw a cantilever with the tip and a spring on the ceiling.

Hall: What he saw looked a lot like a record player: an arm suspended over a surface with a very fine tip.

Binnig: It’s like a record player where a needle follows simply the contours of the surface. And you record this movement of the tip and make an image out of it. And in the record player, you don’t make an image of the surface, but you hear music, but it’s very similar.

Hall: Of course, it wasn’t exactly like a record player. For example, the arm was made of extremely soft material, and it was so small you could hardly see it with your eyes. It could also pick up atoms with its tip.

But the first prototype of Gerd’s new idea did start with a needle from a record player.

Binnig: We took a hammer and smashed the needle into tiny little pieces. And then we picked one tiny little piece out of it, which looked a little bit like a tip and glued it onto a tiny little cantilever, which we built ourselves.

Hall: This tiny arm with a shard from a smashed needle was the first version of what would become known as the atomic force microscope, or AFM. And it blew open the world of nanoscience.

Binnig: It stimulated really a lot of great and intelligent people that brought the technology further.

Hall: In 2016 Gerd and his colleagues received the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience for this invention.

The atomic force microscope made it possible for scientists to watch ion channels open and close, test out devices that are too small to see, detect cancer cells based on how stiff they are—the list goes on and on. 

Binnig: What excited me actually most was the width of applications so that it was used in so many different fields. That you even use it for cosmetics, to develop cosmetics, surprised me.

Hall: One scientist even used the atomic force microscope to “listen” to proteins unfold.

Binnig: When you unfold, for instance, a protein, then the force is changing and changing. And every time, it gives a pulse. And if you put it on a loudspeaker, it gives a sound.

Hall: Really? So what do proteins sound like when you unfold them?

Binnig: It looks like they’re torturing them.

Hall: So they’re screaming, like “Aaaaaah”?

Binnig: Yes, something like that. Correct [laughs].

Hall: These days, Gerd is retired. He spends most of his time watching his grandchildren and working on a book about creativity. But he still thinks about the future of nanoscience.

Gerd says he’s waiting for someone to make it possible for nanotechnologies to reproduce themselves.

Binnig: How do you build a structure on a small scale with atoms, and then you copy it and mass produce it, copy it again and again? And this has not happened yet.

Hall: But he’s convinced it will. Gerd has never shied away from seemingly impossible questions.

He says the solutions often come from a dialogue between your brain and your intuition, like that moment when he was staring up at his ceiling.

Binnig: If you are in a very complex situation, you cannot solve the problem just by logical thinking. It’s too complex; it will take years or decades to solve the problem; maybe it will never happen. But by intuition, you can deal with complex situations much better.

Hall: Gerd says everyone likes to talk about eureka moments—when a solution finally breaks to the surface.

But all of those breakthroughs came from a series of little steps, shuffling in between the conscious and subconscious brain. It’s this dance that fuels true innovation.

Dr. Gerd Binnig is a German physicist and both a Nobel and Kavli Prize Laureate. In 2016 he shared the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience with his colleagues Christoph Gerber and Calvin Quate.

The Kavli Prize recognizes scientists for breakthroughs in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. The Kavli Prize is a partnership among the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, and the U.S.-based Kavli Foundation. 

This work was produced by Scientific American Custom Media and made possible through the support of the Kavli Prize.

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