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Atomic force microscopy takes home Kavli Prize

Gerd Binnig, Christoph Gerber, and Calvin Quate will share foundation's $1 million nanoscience prize

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
June 2, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 23

Credit: IBMImage
Arrows indicate the forces acting on an AFM tip as it moves a cobalt atom over a copper surface.

The Kavli Foundation has recognized atomic force microscopy (AFM) and its overwhelming scientific success as a tool for manipulating and imaging individual atoms with the 2016 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience.

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Credit: IBM Research
Binnig
Credit: IBM Research
Binnig
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Credit: Swiss Nanoscience Institute
Gerber
Credit: Swiss Nanoscience Institute
Gerber
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Credit: Linda Cicero/Stanford
Quate
Credit: Linda Cicero/Stanford
Quate

Gerd Binnig and Christoph Gerber, both formerly at IBM Zurich, and Calvin Quate, emeritus engineering and physics professor at Stanford University, will share the prestigious $1 million prize for their invention and realization of the atomic force microscope in the 1980s.

Binnig also won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the scanning tunneling microscope.

The Kavli nanoscience prize is one of three prizes, each worth $1 million, issued every other year by The Kavli Foundation. With awards in astrophysics and neuroscience as well, the Kavli Prizes honor achievements in “the largest, smallest, and most complex” scientific arenas, noted Ole M. Sejersted, president of the Norwegian Academy of Science & Letters, during this morning’s announcement in Oslo.

AFM has allowed scientists to realize the dream of sculpting structures on an atomic scale. During the 1980s, Binnig, now retired, and Gerber, now at the University of Basel, teamed up with Quate to devise a nanoscale tip on a cantilever capable of moving over atoms on a surface. The forces between the tip and atoms cause the cantilever to deflect, a motion that is converted into an electrical signal.

AFM can be applied to image atoms in solids, liquids, and biological systems. Using the microscope tip, scientists can also swap atoms on surfaces and measure friction at an atomic level.

AFM has become ubiquitous in nanotechnology research over the past 20 years, said Michal Lipson, an electrical engineering professor at Columbia University, during a June 2 simulcast event in New York City.

“There is not a single [research] center without an atomic force microscope,” she said. “This is a must-have tool that all of us use all the time.”

For example, Lipson’s lab uses AFM to determine the alignment of strings of atoms in lithographically designed wires.

The Kavli Prize in Astrophysics went to Ronald W. P. Drever and Kip S. Thorne at Caltech and Rainer Weiss at MIT for their work leading to the discovery of gravitational waves.

Such waves had been predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago, but their detection remained elusive. After decades of searching with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, in September 2015, scientists finally detected gravitational waves created by the collision of two black holes.

The Kavli Prize in Neuroscience is being shared by Eve Marder at Brandeis University; Michael M. Merzenich at the University of California, San Francisco; and Carla J. Shatz at Stanford “for the discovery of mechanisms that allow experience and neural activity to remodel brain function.”

Marder studies neural circuits in crustaceans, Merzenich studies sensory circuits in the cerebral cortex, and Shatz studies the connections between the eyes and brains of mammals that form during development.

The Kavli Prizes were initiated in 2008 by physicist and philanthropist Fred Kavli, who established The Kavli Foundation in 2000. The prizes are awarded every two years.

The prizes will be awarded at a ceremony in Oslo on June 6.

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