Stefan W. Hell

Banquet speech

Stefan W. Hell’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in the Stockholm City Hall, 10 December 2014.

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

What a week, what a day, and what a night …!

I cannot imagine anything more exhilarating than to stand here this evening – also on behalf of my colleagues W. E. Moerner and Eric Betzig – thanking the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Foundation for the honor that has been bestowed upon us. We are so grateful to all who have supported us on our path and – above all – we feel very, very humbled.

Like all laureates, each of us three has his own road to this magnificent hall. Our personal stories have been quite different.

Yet – we have much in common: passion for what we do, and fascination with things that cannot be done, or – let’s say – things that cannot be done … supposedly.

Erwin Schrödinger, who spoke at this banquet eighty-one years ago tonight, wrote: “it is fair to state that we are not going to experiment with single particles any more than we will raise dinosaurs in the zoo”.

Well, one of us, W. E., discovered just the opposite – single molecules can indeed be seen and played with individually.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, what do we learn from this?

First. Erwin Schrödinger would never have gone on to write “Jurassic Park” …

Second. As a Nobel Laureate you should say “this or that is never going to happen”, because you will increase your chances tremendously – of being remembered – decades later – in a Nobel banquet speech.

And so,- on to superresolution fluorescence imaging. According to the belief, molecules closer together than 200 nanometers could not be told apart with focused light. This is because, in a packed molecular crowd, the molecules shout out their fluorescence simultaneously, causing their signal, their voices, to be confused.

But, believe it or not, Eric found a way to discern the molecules by calling on each one of them individually, using a microscope so simple — that he built it with a friend – in his living room.

As for myself, I never had that kind of patience. Calling on each molecule one by one? No way. I just told all of them to be quiet — except for a selected few. —.

Just keep the molecules quiet, and let only a few speak up. … A simple solution to a supposedly unsolvable problem. It made the resolution limit – history.

Now have a guess, where did this idea occur to me?

Not very far from here, actually: in a student dorm in Finnish Åbo – in what you may kindly call – a living room.—

— So, what does it take, ladies and gentlemen, to end up standing here, telling you a story of important discoveries or improvements?

Well … You definitely need a living room. At the very least, you need a place to sleep. And when you fall asleep you may forget that others consider you – too daring or too foolish.

But when morning comes, you would better find yourself saying: “I have so many choices of what to do or what to leave – every morning, every day. I better judge for myself, and — go ahead and do it.”

Because nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come – even if it came in a – living room – or to someone – with a humble living.

And- if you feel we’ll never raise dinosaurs … Who knows? One day someone may be actually standing here — giving a banquet speech.

So, let us embrace a culture that addresses problems deemed impossible to solve — and let us now honor those who will do so with a toast.


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2014

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