Scientific research, failure, and the scanning tunneling microscope

“99% of all you do is failure and that’s maybe the most difficult part of basic research,” said Gerd Binnig in a snippet I’ve culled from an interview with Dexter Johnson (Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) posted May 23, 2011 where Binnig discussed why he continued with a project that had failed time and time again. (The snippet is from the 2nd audio file from the top of the posting)

Binnig along with Heinrich Rohrer is a Nobel Laureate. Both men won their award for work on the scanning tunneling microscope (STM), which was the project that had failed countless times and that went on to play an important part in the nanotechnology narrative. Earlier this month, both men were honoured when IBM and ETH Zurich opened the Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center in Zurich. From the May 17, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

IBM and ETH Zurich, a premiere European science and engineering university, hosted more than 600 guests from industry, academia and government, to open the Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center located on the campus of IBM Research – Zurich. The facility is the centerpiece of a 10-year strategic partnership in nanoscience between IBM and ETH Zurich where scientists will research novel nanoscale structures and devices to advance energy and information technologies.

The new Center is named for Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, the two IBM scientists and Nobel Laureates who invented the scanning tunneling microscope at the Zurich Research Lab in 1981, thus enabling researchers to see atoms on a surface for the first time. The two scientists attended today’s opening ceremony, at which the new lab was unveiled to the public.

Here’s an excerpt from Dexter’s posting where he gives some context for the audio files,

As promised last week, I would like to share some audio recordings I made of Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer taking questions from the press during the opening of the new IBM and ETH Zurich nanotechnology laboratory named in their honor.

This first audio file features both Binnig’s and Rohrer’s response to my question of why they were interested in looking at inhomogenities on surfaces in the first place, which led them eventually to creating an instrument for doing it. A more complete history of the STM’s genesis can be found in their joint Nobel lecture here.

The sound quality isn’t the best but these snippets are definitely worth listening to if you find the process of scientific inquiry interesting.

For anyone who’s not familiar with the scanning tunneling microscope, I found this description in the book, Soft Machines; Nanotechnology and Life, by Richard Jones.

Scanning probe microscopes rely on an entirely different principle to both light microscopes and electron microscopes, or indeed our own eyes. Rather than detecting waves that have been scattered from the object we are looking at, on feels the surface of that object with a physical probe. This probe is moved across the surface with high precision. As it tracks the contours of the surface, it s moved up or down in a way that is controlled by some interaction between the tip of the probe and the surface. This interaction could be the flow of electrical current, in the case of a scanning tunneling microscope, or simple the force between the tip and the surface in the case of an atomic force microscope. pp. 17-18

2 thoughts on “Scientific research, failure, and the scanning tunneling microscope

  1. Pingback: Nature of Things and its nanorevolution « FrogHeart

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