A scientist who not only sees the wood and the trees, but the light

Ni Tao
Most exciting new developments in the modern world occur at the boundary between disciplines, between chemistry and physics, or between chemistry and biology.
Ni Tao

Impenetrable scientific ideas can sometimes be illuminated by a tiny firefly.

That’s how William E. Moerner explained his discovery of the blinking single molecule that led him to share the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with fellow scientists Eric Betzig and Stefan Hell for their development of the super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.

Honestly, before I interviewed Moerner during the recent World Laureates Forum in Shanghai, I had no idea what this jargon was all about; nor did a Google search help much.

But sitting across from a group of curious journalists, the American physicist unexpectedly made a long story short by using fireflies as a metaphor to explain how the microscopy works.

This started 30 years ago, with his finding that single molecules within a cell can turn on and off in a random way. Traditional microscopes are unable to detect the structure of cells down to, say, five nanometers across.

Moerner likened the cell structures to tree branches at night. In order to trace the contour of the darkened tree, he and his team placed “fireflies” — blinking molecules — all along the branches.

“Then you take a movie and see flash, flash, flash along different branches of the tree,” said Moerner.

Every time a firefly was spotted, his team jotted down its position; and when they saw all positions at once, they made out the whole shape of the “tree.”

“That’s exactly what we did with molecules,” Moerner noted.

His discovery culminated in the creation of a super-resolved microscopy that allowed lab researchers to see very fine details that could not be seen before.

The Nobel prize, however, came not just because it was a great discovery, but because of its broader impact on the scientific community and greater society.

This has been the chief criterion, in Moerner’s words, for the Nobel Prize committee in choosing their candidates and final recipients.

“It should be important enough for many people to switch and start doing experiments,” he said.

What’s more, the development of the microscopy has implications for cell biology, allowing, for example, doctors to see how something does not function correctly within a living cell.

A whole range of applications have since been developed, in which the fluorescence microscopy could replace electron microscopy as part of routine diagnosis.

Moerner recalled imaging the fibers of Huntington disease with the new resolutions made possible by the microscope, while another scientist analyzed the mechanisms behind Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

This doesn’t necessarily provide a cure for diseases like cancer, but it certainly supplies man with a tool that can be applied to determining whether a treatment is really effective at a cellular level.

Moerner believes that artificial intelligence is also affecting how microscopy works.

Some AI-powered tools can locate molecules quickly, speeding up analysis of more complex, overlapping images.

His ability to communicate abstruse scientific ideas to outsiders in lay language is presumably a prized skill not shared by all.

In this sense, Moerner is spot on about the essence of what it means to be a scientist — one has to be an expert in “crossover.”

He further illustrated this point by pointing to the proclivity for interdisciplinary research among Nobel science laureates.

This is because most exciting new developments in the modern world occur at the boundary between disciplines, between chemistry and physics, or between chemistry and biology, he said.

This compels a scientist to become an expert in a certain area, but having the interest in other nearby areas is just as important.

Recognizing that science is already interdisciplinary enough is the first step toward having an open mind and continuous curiosity.

“There are a lot of potential new discoveries that way,” said Moerner.

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