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Heinrich Rohrer, Nobel Laureate and IBM Fellow

image of Heinrich Rohrer
Heinrich Rohrer
Dr. Heinrich Rohrer, IBM Fellow, Nobel Laureate and co-inventor of the scanning tunneling microscope, passed away on the evening of May 16, 2013. He was 79. Dr. Rohrer joined IBM Research - Zurich in December of 1963, where he worked for 34 years.

"The invention of the scanning tunneling microscope was a seminal moment in the history of science and information technology," said Dr. John E. Kelly III, IBM senior vice president and director of Research. "This invention gave scientists the ability to image, measure and manipulate atoms for the first time, and opened new avenues for information technology that we are still pursuing today."

After hiring a young scientist named Gerd Binnig in the late 1970s, the two started collaborating, brought together by their backgrounds in superconductivity and their fascination with atomic surfaces. They grew increasingly frustrated by the limits of the tools then available, so they built their own, capable of seeing and manipulating atoms at the nanoscale level.

They began experimenting with tunneling, a quantum phenomenon in which electrons can escape the surface of a solid. When another surface approaches, the electron clouds can overlap and an electric current can flow.

Binnig and Rohrer found that when maneuvering a sharp metal conducting tip over the surface of a sample, the amount of electrical current flowing between the tip and the surface could be measured. Variations in the current provided information about the inner structure, and from this information,  they could build a three-dimensional atomic-scale map of the sample’s surface. 

In January 1979, Binnig and Rohrer submitted their first patent disclosure on the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). Soon afterwards, with the help of fellow IBM researcher Christoph Gerber, they began to design and construct the microscope.

During their first few months of construction, Binnig and Rohrer made a series of adjustments to their original design, leading to reductions in vibrations and noise, more precise control of the scanning tip’s location and movement, and improved sharpness of the probe tip.

image of Heinrich Rohrer
Nobel Laureates Gerd Binnig (left) and Heinrich Rohrer (right) of
IBM Research - Zurich were awarded the Nobel prize for Physics
in 1986 for the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM).

Their first experiment involved the surface structure of gold crystal. The resulting images showed rows of precisely spaced atoms and broad terraces separated by steps one atom in height.

More refinements to the microscope improved the precision of the mechanical design and resulted in increasingly clearer images. Soon the significance of Binnig and Rohrer’s invention started reaching scientists around the world, who could now have access to the nanoscale world of individual atoms and molecules.

As the STM could also be used to push and pull individual atoms around, it also marked the first time that humans were able to manipulate objects that small. The invention is considered to have opened the door to nanotechnology.

In awarding Binnig and Rohrer the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986, just five years after the first STM had been built, the Nobel committee said the invention opened up "entirely new fields... for the study of the structure of matter."

In 2011, in the presence of 600 guests from throughout the research community, IBM and ETH Zurich dedicated the Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center in Rüschlikon in honor of the scientists' achievements.

For me, Heini was father figure, role model, emotional and spiritual teacher, and best friend - all rolled into one. An eminent person, with an incredible sense of humanity and kindness.

-Gerd Binnig

Heinrich Rohrer was as famous for his kindly personality as for his sharp wit and humor. During the opening ceremony of the Center he participated in a public discussion with Binnig and Dr. Ralph Eicher, then president of ETH Zurich. After Binnig attempted to explain their invention, Rohrer jokingly apologized to the audience saying, "If you didn't quite understand what Gerd just told you, you are not alone."

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About Heinrich Rohrer

Heinrich Rohrer was born on June 6, 1933, in Buchs, Switzerland. In 1949, the Rohrer family moved to Zurich and a few years later Heinrich enrolled at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), where he studied Physics under Wolfgang Pauli.

In the summer of 1961, Heinrich married Rose-Marie Egger and their honeymoon in the United States led to a two-year project studying thermal conductivity of type-II superconductors and metals at Rutgers University. Shortly thereafter in 1963, he returned to Switzerland to join the Physics department at the newly founded IBM Research - Zurich Laboratory.

In January of 1979, Heinrich Rohrer and fellow IBM scientist Gerd Binnig submitted their first patent disclosure on the scanning tunneling microscope, which was recognized in 1986 with the Nobel Prize for Physics.

In May of 2011, in the presence of more than 600 guests, the Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center was inaugurated in Rueschlikon, Switzerland, as a world-class facility for collaborative research..

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