MY 1983 IDEA FOR A SUPER-RESOLVING
SINGLE-MOLECULE FLUORESCENCE MICROSCOPE INDEPENDENTLY WON THE 2014
NOBEL PRIZE IN CHEMISTRY
From around 1980 I started an intensive program of self-study in optics that lasted for decades, and my initial focus was super-resolution telescopes. I joined the Optical Society of America and SPIE the International Society for Optics and Photonics, invented and experimented on many schemes such as Calibrated Digital Imaging Systems, auto-stereoscopic displays, and made experiments applying my new theory of Streamline Diffraction to cancel diffraction effects (see my Physics section of the website for details) . Before the latter invention however, in 1983 I jotted down in my notebook an idea for a super-resolving microscope based on the concept of time resolved single views of individual self-luminous molecules. I did not publish the idea anywhere, but in the summer of 1995 I mentioned it in my application for the 1996 Carl Zeiss Research Award offered by the famed optics company co-founded by Ernst Abbe. It was Abbe himself who in the 19th c. set the diffraction-limits to microscope resolution that my idea sought to surpass. Abbe's formula literally set in stone at Jena (photo on right) says that microscope resolution more than about half the wavelength of light is impossible. Imagine the mixture of surprise and pride when microscopes based on essentially an identical concept were announced in 2011 by Dr. Eric Betzig and his team. See the announcement and my comments at physicsworld.com A greater surprise came in 2014 when Dr. Betzig and two others won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work. Zeiss has developed sophisticated microscopes based on the same basic principle which they call photo activated localization microscopy PALM. (Asked to comment on this coincidence, Zeiss convincingly denied my idea was passed on to the Nobel laureates.)
In his Nobel lecture Dr. Betzig mentioned a long list of researchers including himself who worked hard to overcome technical difficulties related to getting molecules to shine individually, to achieve super-resolution beyond the theoretical Abbe limits.
Whoever had the idea first, it is humanity that is the ultimate winner because such microscopes can image living cells with great clarity, an invaluable new tool for medical research. A recent article "Beyond the Limits" in Nature journal including my comment, explains the technology and impact of the new florescence super-resolving microscopes, and how they are revolutionizing cell research in biology - hence in medicine.
Compare my 1983 notes below with the slide and figure from the Nobel Prize announcement website in 2015.
My 1983 notes and sketches for taking sequential blurred images (at times t1..t2..) of 'scintillating' i.e. fluorescent molecules and combining them into one highly detailed image. Because the molecules emit light one at a time, their images in any one sequence do not overlap and their position is known with high precision beyond the Abbe diffraction limit.
The slide shown when the Nobel Prize in 2014 was announced explaining how Dr. Betzig's microscope works.
Figure 4 from the popular explanation on nobelprize.org of Dr. Betzig's method. Notice how the stack of images taken at different times are combined into a single image, exactly how I imagined the process!
This Zeiss superresolution microscope features the PALM module based on the same idea of time-resolved florescent imaging of individual molecules.
An example of the sort of amazing detail, made possible using
the the superresolution techniques discussed here in the PALM module.
3D imaging required other refinements and computer enhancements.
Image Credit:R. Dyche Mullins/Lillian Fritz-Laylin/Megan Riel-Mehan.
Letter from the President and CEO of Zeiss kindly confirming the
mention of my 1983
super-resolved microscope concept. Because I never developed or
published my invention, this letter is the only public confirmation of
priority for the invention of this type of microscope.