Gerd Karl Binnig
Born Jul 20 1947
Scanning Tunneling Microscope
Patent Number(s) 4,343,993
Since the invention of the first microscope, scientists have searched for improved ways to explore the microscopic world. Optical systems were limited by the wavelength of light (roughly 2,000 times the diameter of an atom). Later, electron microscopes achieved much higher resolution by taking advantage of the much shorter wavelength of electrons in forming images. The most recent revolution came with Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd Karl Binnig's scanning tunneling microscope (STM), invented in 1981, which provided the first images of individual atoms on the surfaces of materials.
The STM can image atomic details as tiny as 1/25th the diameter of a typical atom, which corresponds to a resolution several orders of magnitude better than the best electron microscope. The STM's significance was quickly recognized throughout the world, and it has been used in fields as diverse as semiconductor science, metallurgy, electrochemistry, and molecular biology. Only five years after Binnig and Rohrer built the first STM, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. The Nobel committee said the invention opened up 'entirely new fields...for the study of the structure of matter.'
Binnig and Rohrer began their STM work at the IBM Zurich Division's Research Laboratory in 1978. Binnig, born in Frankfurt, West Germany, had just completed his Ph.D. at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt, where he studied superconductivity. Rohrer, born in Buchs, Switzerland, received his degree at the Eidenossiche Technische Hockschule in 1960 and had been with IBM since 1963.