Pursuing a path that altered the course of science
Professor Stefan Hell received the Bayer Hansen Family Award before he was crowned a Nobel Prize winner.
"My fascination with doing something that could alter the course of science was greater than my fear of ending up a pauper!"
Story and interview by Krysia Sommers
Mozart died a pauper. Van Gogh allegedly sold just one painting in his lifetime. And more than 100 years following the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity, its implications were finally demonstrated. These three, who were mavericks in their lifetimes, can safely be dubbed the world’s most famous composer, artist, and scientist respectively.
This is partly due to the minds of brilliant people – born decades later – who recognized they had stumbled upon gems and who became determined to defend and to prove the truth and the excellence of their work.
Mozart died a pauper. Van Gogh allegedly sold just one painting in his lifetime.
One of these brilliant people today is Professor Stefan Hell, who came across a paper written by a visionary entrepreneur and optical scientist called Ernst Abbe which was written in 1874. Almost 150 years later, Professor Hell was curious to explore why Abbe had proposed that the resolution of a microscope scales with the wavelength of light, and why the world has taken it for granted. Thanks to his dedicated research, the Göttingen physicist has revolutionized light microscopy, leading to a new class of microscopes, which can look significantly deeper into the molecular details of life.
Dr. Wolfgang Plischke, Bayer's former Head of Research, has said: "Professor Hell had a strong belief that he could break the diffraction limit in light microscopes discovered by Abbe. With the help of physical methods and fluorescent molecules, he has overcome the apparently insurmountable barrier to achieve something which is revolutionizing medical and biological research today.”
In 2011, Professor Hell received the prestigious Bayer Hansen Family Prize in recognition of his discovery. Three years later he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Can you describe your journey of discovery – including any tough times and how you overcame them?
Overcoming Abbe’s resolution barrier sounded very outlandish twenty to thirty years ago. The resolution barrier was textbook knowledge, and a blunt reality in thousands of life science laboratories every day. Moreover, it was the reason why physicists developed electron microscopy and scanning probe microscopy in the 20th century. As a twenty-five-year-old student, I found the idea of embarking on a crazy scientific endeavor such as defying Abbe’s law to be very enticing. Firstly, no one had really worked on this problem. Since I was tackling such an unconventional topic, I was able to avoid the rat race that is commonplace in established areas of science. Secondly, I found it thrilling to work on something that others had deemed impossible. Of course, I wasn’t sure if my ideas would work at all. However, working on the edge and pushing human knowledge to new boundaries was very fascinating and rewarding in itself. My unusual scientific goal and my first steps towards overcoming the resolution barrier were met with disbelief, to say the least. This is why my personal and professional path were initially uncertain for quite some time. However, the fascination with doing something that may alter the course of science was greater than my fear of ending up a pauper.
“Working on the edge and pushing human knowledge to new boundaries was very fascinating and rewarding in itself.”
Professor Stefan Hell, Nobel Prize winner.
Five questions to Professor Stefan Hell
What would be your advice to young scientists today who are keen to prove a theory that was predicted long ago?
Theories and scientists come and go. The rules of nature are eternal. Therefore, it is wise to find out whether established theories should really be taken for granted.
How can a scientist or entrepreneur know if they are on the right path?
The truth is that he or she cannot know. They can only guess based on intuition and past experience. My personal advice is that any person pursuing an ambitious goal has to make reality checks frequently and without bias. It is crucial to ask oneself if the goal is really attainable and to identify whether there are any independent external factors, such as continuous technological advancements, which would need to be realized before the aim could be achieved? Sometimes things turn out to be less difficult than at first glance, provided that one looks at those problems with fresh eyes. Knowledge can push one to get caught up in details, while missing the big picture. I would even argue that ignorance can be extremely helpful, because pre-existing knowledge of what can go wrong may be discouraging and, as a matter of fact, misguiding.
“My personal advice is that any person pursuing an ambitious goal has to make reality checks frequently and without bias.”
Professor Stefan Hell, Nobel Prize winner.
What do you believe are three key factors to help scientific research thrive?
The human factors are by far the biggest: ambition, intellectual non-conformity, and the compulsion to see the world as it is.
What role do you believe science has in helping to achieve a world with health for all and hunger for none?
I think the role of science in these endeavors is truly decisive. At the end of the day, it was scientific progress that has helped to feed the world and that has allowed us to live longer and in better health. Last but not least, so-called ‘societal progress’ is in fact nothing but a byproduct of scientific progress that has naturally evolved accordingly.