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Forces of nature: Interview with microscopy innovators Gerd Binnig and Christoph Gerber


The inventors of one of the most versatile tools in modern science – the atomic force microscope, or AFM – tell their story in an interview published online this week. The AFM was invented in the mid 1980s by Gerd Binnig, Christoph Gerber and Calvin Quate, three physicists who are sharing the 2016 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience.

Binnig and Gerber discuss their inspiration for the device, how they solved problems through sport, and why their invention continues to propel science at the nanoscale.

"AFM has turned into the most powerful and most versatile toolkit that we have for doing nanoscience. And it keeps evolving," said Gerber in the interview. Gerber is a professor of physics at the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, part of the University of Basel. "In just the past few years, researchers have learned to pick up a molecule on the tip of an AFM, which we can think of as the needle on a record player, and reveal chemical bonds while imaging molecules on surfaces. Nobody thought that ever would be possible."

Unlike optical microscopes, AFM doesn't use light to illuminate an object. Instead, it measures the tiny forces between a sharp tip at the end of a cantilever and the surface of an object. As it scans a surface, what emerges is an image so clear that researchers can even distinguish chemical bonds within a molecule. They can also use the tip to create and cleave those bonds, and push atoms around.

"[AFM] lets us look at the molecules that make life possible… and see things we could not see before," said Binnig, who received the Nobel Prize in 1986 for the scanning tunneling microscope, AFM's predecessor. "It teaches us how to make changes to surfaces or molecules that we attempted blindly in the past. And it has been used in so many different scientific studies, from looking at polymers and chemical reactions to modifying surfaces at the atomic level."

The complete interview is freely available at:

The three Nanoscience laureates will be honored at the Kavli Prize Award Ceremony in Oslo, Norway, on September 6, 2016. The prizes were announced June 2 by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters:


About The Kavli Prizes

The Kavli Prizes recognize scientists for their seminal advances in three research areas: astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. Consisting of a scroll, medal and cash award of one million dollars, a prize in each of these areas is awarded every two years beginning in 2008.

Kavli Prize recipients are chosen biennially by three prize committees comprised of distinguished international scientists recommended by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the French Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Society, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society.

The 2016 Kavli Prizes will be awarded in Oslo, Norway, on September 6. For detailed information on each of the prizes, the 2016 laureates and their work, and all the Kavli Prize Week events, please see the Kavli Prize website:

The Kavli Prizes are a partnership between the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, The Kavli Foundation (USA) and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.

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Jim Cohen
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