Thursday, June 6, 2013

Heinrich Rohrer, Inventor of Scanning Tunnel Microscope

Heinrich Rohrer, Physicist, Dies at 79; Helped Open Door to Nanotechnology

European Pressphoto Agency
Heinrich Rohrer, left, and Gerd Binnig, his fellow Nobelist, in 1986. The men invented the scanning tunneling microscope.

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Heinrich Rohrer, who shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing a microscope that made it possible to see individual atoms and move them around, an achievement that led to vastly faster computing and greatly advanced molecular biology, died on Thursday night or early Friday morning in Wollerau, Switzerland. He was 79.

His family said he had died of natural causes.
Dr. Rohrer and his colleague Gerd Binnig introduced the device, the scanning tunneling microscope, or STM, at an I.B.M. laboratory in Zurich in 1981, after decades of explosive growth in microscopy. The STM enabled scientists to make accurate images of details as tiny as one-25th the diameter of a typical atom.
The advance helped give rise to the science of nanotechnology: the manipulation of matter at the atomic or molecular scale. Nanotechnology has revealed the structure of things like viruses and computer chips and improved industrial processes like metal fabrication and the manufacture of computer components, clothing, cosmetics and paint.
Dr. Rohrer and Dr. Binnig shared the Nobel Prize with Ernst Ruska, who invented the electron microscope in 1931.
“The invention of the scanning tunneling microscope was a seminal moment in the history of science and information technology,” John E. Kelly III, an I.B.M. senior vice president and director of research, said in a statement. “This invention gave scientists the ability to image, measure and manipulate atoms for the first time, and opened new avenues for information technology that we are still pursuing today.”
The Nobel committee said Dr. Rohrer and Dr. Binnig had opened up “entirely new fields” for “the study of the structure of matter.”
Dr. Rohrer and Dr. Binnig, who had both done work in superconductivity and magnetic fields, were initially interested in studying the little-understood and complex atomic structures that make up the surfaces of minerals. It is at their surfaces that materials interact with the physical world.
But they found that electron microscopes, which investigate the internal arrangements of materials, did not help. The scientists decided they needed to develop a new type of microscope.
Their idea for the microscope’s “lens” was an exceedingly thin wire tip — the width of a single atom. Through a quantum mechanical effect called tunneling, a tiny current of electricity would flow from the tip to a surface to be scanned. The closer the probe got to a surface, the more electricity would flow. A computer would interpret the subtle changes in current to make a contour map of the hills and valleys of the atomic terrain.
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.’ ”
Dr. Rohrer and Dr. Binnig successfully tested the device in 1981. By 1987, they had captured images as small as 0.25 billionths of an inch.
Using the wire as a tool, they began moving individual atoms around like building blocks. In 1990, Donald M. Eigler and Erhard Schweizer used it to spell I.B.M. in xenon atoms on a nickel crystal. Other scanning microscopes have been developed to measure data like temperature and magnetism at extremely minute levels.
Heinrich Rohrer was born in Buchs, St. Gallen, Switzerland, on June 6, 1933, as his parents’ third child, half an hour after his twin sister. He went to a country school until the family moved to Zurich in 1949. His favorite subjects were mathematics, science, and Latin and Greek. He concentrated on physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and graduated in 1955. He earned his Ph.D. there in 1960.
Moving to the United States, Dr. Rohrer spent two years at Rutgers University doing postdoctoral research on superconductors and metals. He joined I.B.M. in 1963.
In an interview with the Nobel Foundation in 2008, he said I.B.M. had granted him the “freedom to make mistakes.”
“Unfortunately,” he added, “this freedom for scientists gets more and more lost. Otherwise you do the common things. You don’t dare to do something beyond what everybody else thinks.”
Dr. Rohrer is survived by his wife, Rose-Marie Rohrer-Egger; his daughters, Doris Rohrer Hansen and Ellen Rohrer; and two grandchildren.
One of the latest uses of Dr. Rohrer’s invention came this year, when I.B.M. scientists made what they call history’s tiniest stop-action film, as verified by Guinness World Records. Called “A Boy and His Atom,” the film assembles atoms into the image of a small boy and shows him dancing, bouncing about and playing catch with an atom. It was made by moving atoms frame by frame — 250 frames in all — and magnifying them 100 million times.

Heinrich Rohrer (6 June 1933 – 16 May 2013) was a Swiss physicist who shared half of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics with Gerd Binnig for the design of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). The other half of the Prize was awarded to Ernst Ruska.[1]




Rohrer was born in Buchs, St. Gallen half an hour after his twin sister. He enjoyed a carefree country childhood until the family moved to Zürich in 1949. He enrolled in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in 1951, where he was student of Wolfgang Pauli and Paul Scherrer. His doctoral dissertation was on his work measuring the length changes of superconductors at the magnetic-field-induced superconducting transition, a project begun by Jörgen Lykke Olsen. In the course of his research, he found that he had to do most of his research at night after the city was asleep because his measurements were so sensitive to vibration.
His studies were interrupted by his military service in the Swiss mountain infantry. In 1961, he married Rose-Marie Egger. Their honeymoon trip to the United States included a stint doing research on thermal conductivity of type-II superconductors and metals with Bernie Serin at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
In 1963, he joined the IBM Research Laboratory in Rüschlikon under the direction of Ambros Speiser. The first couple of years at IBM, he studied Kondo systems with magnetoresistance in pulsed magnetic fields. He then began studying magnetic phase diagrams, which eventually brought him into the field of critical phenomena.
In 1974, he spent a sabbatical year at the University of California in Santa Barbara, California studying nuclear magnetic resonance with Vince Jaccarino and Alan King.
Until 1982 he worked on the scanning tunneling microscope. He was appointed IBM Fellow in 1986, and led the physics department of the research lab from 1986 until 1988.


Rohrer died of natural causes May 16, 2013 at his home in Wollerau, Switzerland. He was 79 and is survived by his wife; daughters Doris and Ellen; and two grandchildren.[2]

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