Along with his research colleague Heinrich Rohrer, Gerd Binnig invented the first microscope that opened the individual atom to view. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences found this scanning tunneling microscope (STM) so importantthat it awarded the device's inventors half of the 1986 Nobel Prize in physics just five years after the first successful test of the STM. The academy declared that even though development of the STM was in its infancy, it was already clear that "entirely new fields are opening up for the study of the structure of matter." Binnig was only 39 years old when he received the honor.
Binnig was born in Frankfurt am Main, then West Germany, on July 20, 1947, the son of Ruth Bracke Binnig, a drafter, and Karl Franz Binnig, a machine engineer. Binnig earned both a diploma and a Ph.D. in physics from Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. Immediately after receiving his doctorate for work on superconductivity in 1978, Binnig joined the staff of the researchlaboratory operated by International Business Machines (IBM) in Zurich, Switzerland, and began his collaboration with Rohrer on the development of the STM.
Rohrer had been at the IBM lab since 1963 and also had a background in superconductivity. Together Binnig and Rohrer became interested in exploring the characteristics of the surface of materials. The atomic structure of the surface of a solid differs from the atomic structure of the solid's interior in that atoms on the surface can interact only with atoms at, on, and immediately below the surface, making surface structures frustratingly complex.
To accomplish their goal, Binnig and Rohrer turned to a phenomenon of quantummechanics known as tunneling. Quantum mechanics had earlier revealed that the wavelike nature of electrons permits them to escape the surface boundary ofa solid--they "smear out" beyond the surface and form an electron cloud around the solid. Electrons can "tunnel" through touching and overlapping cloudsbetween two surfaces. Ivar Giaever of General Electric verified this experimentally in 1960. Binnig had investigated tunneling in superconductors during his graduate studies. Now he and Rohrer decided to make electrons tunnel through a vacuum from a sample solid surface to a sharp, needlelike probe. As theneedle tip approaches within a nanometer (one billionth of a meter) of the sample, their electron clouds touch and a tunneling current starts to flow. Theprobe's tip follows this current at a constant height above the surface atoms, producing a three-dimensional map of the solid's surface, atom by atom.
In order to insulate their microscope against the serious problem of distorting vibration and noise, Binnig and Rohrer made a series of technical advancesthat included the creation of a probe tip consisting of a single atom. The colleagues and their research team soon demonstrated practical uses of the STM, revealing the surface structure of crystals, observing chemical interactions, and scanning the surface of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) chains. Using theSTM, Binnig became the first person to observe a virus escape from a living cell. The tremendous importance of the STM lies in its many applications--forbasic research in chemistry, physics, and biology and for applied research insemiconductor physics, microelectronics, metallurgy, and bioengineering.
While he was on leave at Stanford University in California in 1985, Binnig examined the use of the atomic force between atoms, rather than tunneling current, to move the scanning tip over a solid's surface. Binnig shared his ideaswith Christoph Gerber of IBM Zurich and Calvin Quate of Stanford, and soon they had produced a prototype of a new type of scanner, the atomic force microscope (AFM), which started a new field of microscopy. The AFM made it possiblefor the first time to image materials that are not electrically conductive.
Binnig became group leader at IBM's Zurich lab in 1984, and also an IBM Fellow. He was visiting professor at Stanford from 1986 to 1988. He was the authorof a popular German book on human creativity and chaos titled Aus dem Nichts ( Out of Nothing ), which argued that creativity arises from disordered thoughts. He and Rohrer shared a number of prestigious international awards for their pioneering research in microscopy.