Transcript from an interview with William E. Moerner

Interview with William E. Moerner on 6 December 2014, during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

Can you explain your work in easy-to-understand terms.

The work that I did to receive the Nobel Prize, involved detecting single molecules, individual molecules. What you want to think about, is that a single molecule is incredibly tiny, just a few nanometers in size and those single molecules are now being used as light sources, which are used to make an image of a structure or an object inside a bacterium or a cell at extremely high resolution. Because they are so small, they can go beyond the diffraction limit of light, it is ultimate sort of limit, that has, until now, made microscopes be very fuzzy in pictures that they take.

At what point did you realize your work was a breakthrough?

We realized that our work was going to be very important, when we started seeing amazing surprises from these individual molecules. You might think that “Oh, I look at an individual molecule at low temperatures and maybe they are all the same and so there is nothing really interesting”, but the molecules were behaving differently. One molecule would jump from one colour to another or wave links to another or they would turn on and off and blink in interesting ways. And it is because of the molecules do this, that they have an individual behaviour that we were very excited. Going beyond this previous limit of not being able to see single molecules, opened up a whole new arena of new science, new chemistry and new applications – such as the super resolution microscopy.

What brought you to science?

When I was growing up, I became very interested in science, partly because of the influence of my parents who were encouraging me in science and mathematics in every way. I spent time taking apart old television sets, I learned how to do experiments in chemistry in the backyard. In terms of the sort of the stimulus from my parents and my father’s ability to repair things, I grew to love working and fixing things and figuring out how they work. So, those directed me towards science and the really important thing to think about is, how does this really work, how does everything in our world and nature, how does it behave and that’s kind of the sort of the passion for understanding. That really makes science exciting for me.

Who is your role model, and why?

You know, when I think about role models, I can imagine many answers to that question. There is a lot of people that have been influenced me, my mentors in college and graduate school, but if I go back and think about the scientist that inspired me, I would have to say someone like Michael Faraday, who spent a great deal of time influencing multiple fields of science. That is contributing to chemistry and contributing to physics and contributing to materials and so forth and so that’s kind of guided me a lot, that idea of learning different areas of science and putting them together to push back some boundaries. It is kind of something that has been exciting me all along.

What were you doing when you heard you had been awarded the Prize in Economic Sciences?

When that day occurred, I was at a conference in Brazil and I was getting ready go to the talks for this particular meeting on fundamentals of light matter interactions. So, what a wonderful conference to attend. I was not contacted directly by the Nobel Foundation because it was too difficult to reach me, so I received a phone call from my wife and I had just gotten dressed for the meeting but then I had to change clothes quickly to get ready for the interviews and so forth that occurred right after, so I was very surprised, excited and thrilled to hear about the prize.

Watch the interview

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