Intuition Leads to the Tool that Opened Up the Nanoscale Universe and a New Nanotechnology Lab

IBM’s and ETH Zurich’s new nanotechnology lab is named after Nobel Laureates Binnig and Rohrer inventors of the STM

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Intuition Leads to the Tool that Opened Up the Nanoscale Universe and a New Nanotechnology Lab


I was a guest yesterday of IBM along with a group of some 600 assorted dignitaries, politicians and other journalists at the opening of a new $90-million nanotechnology research laboratory at IBM research facilities in Zurich Switzerland. 

Along with some other journalists, I had received a preview of the facility back in November and even then with concrete still being poured and a jumble of wires seemingly sprouting up from everywhere the facility impressed with its unique “noise-free labs”. (I should note that it does seem that the final cost is now being reported as $90 million now rather than the $60-million figure I reported back in November. I have been told since posting this that the additional $30 million constitutes the cost of equipment, which was not calculated in my original figure.)

But yesterday’s event was truly a spectacle with a big band orchestra and a performance by a group of yoddlers that harkened back to Arthur K. Watson, the son of the founder of IBM, offering a yoddle for a Swiss audience 50 years ago—a recording of which preceded yesterday’s life performance. The festivities were not even dampened by the high level of security that was present apparently in response to some type of terrorist threat(s) targeting the new facility.

While a great deal of attention was paid to the collaborative partnership that will exist at the new facility between IBM and ETH Zurich, it was perhaps the more sentimental aspect of the day that provided a climax to the opening and was my personal interest in the story.


The new facility has been named the Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center in honor of the two Nobel Laureates, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, who in 1986, along with Ernst Ruska for his previous work in the design of the electron microscope, received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope at IBM in Zurich.

Both Binnig and Rohrer were on hand not only to unveil the naming plaque for the new lab but to conduct a discussion for the full 600 guests and do a Q&A session with journalists and later one-on-one interviews. The duo brought the assembled audiences to laughter frequently with their oddly juxtaposed personalities—Rohrer describing himself as a down-to-earth pragmatist and Binnig possessing a touch of the poet from where I sat—they seemed like Nobel Laureates who could become a comedy duo.

Anyone who is involved in the field of nanoscience and nanotechnology owes a debt of gratitude to both of these scientists for deciding that model systems for approximating surfaces and clumsily dealing with inhomogeneities on surfaces wasn’t sufficient and that a device should be developed so that we can actually see…and touch…the surface of things on the atomic scale.

In the IEEE Spectrum’s oft-quoted interview with Binnig back in 2004, A Beautiful Noise, Binnig describes the utter lack of success they had in trying to get their prototype device to do what they expected it to do.

“In a way, this process is just like Columbus going from Europe to America: on the way there, he has no clue that he is coming closer,” relates Binnig in the interview/ “We were in exactly the same situation because the instrument never worked. You have no clue what to do, what knobs to turn to make it work better, because it simply does not work at all. You can’t be sure whether you are close to a solution or not.”

Remembering this part of the interview, I was struck by his comment in front of the audience that he always believed that the instrument he had sketched out three days after starting at IBM would work. So, I asked him why under those circumstances did he continue to believe it would work.

“It’s hard to explain,” he began. “Somehow you just have intuition that it will work.”

[A number of recordings both video and audio were made of the event, and I expect that I will be able to share these on the blog in the coming days.]

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