Former IBMer Earns Nobel

The Royal Swedish Academy of Science recognizes work by W.E. Moerner

W.E. Moerner

IBM Honors Nobel Prize Winner Dr. William E. Moerner

At the IBM Research - Almaden Lab in San Jose, CA, former IBM Research scientist and 2014 Nobel Prize winner Dr. W.E.. Moerner (right) receives a plaque from IBM Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications Jon Iwata (left) and IBM Research Senior Vice President Arvind Krishna (center) commemorating his pioneering achievements in chemistry. Dr. Moerner began his career at IBM Research - Almaden in 1981 and is the sixth Nobel Laureate with ties to IBM.

William E. Moerner

Photo: K. Lowder via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Former IBM Research scientist Dr. William E. Moerner has been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, the sixth Nobel Laureate with ties to IBM. His work with Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute led to the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, or “surpassing the limitations of the light microscope.” 

W.E. started his career in Almaden in 1981, working on optical storage and laser-materials interactions. He led a team that demonstrated for the first time the recording of multiple holographic images in a photorefractive polymer in 1989. He moved on to academia in 1995 and is currently the Harry S. Mosher Professor in Chemistry and Professor, by courtesy, of Applied Physics at Stanford University.

Surpassing the limitations of the light microscope

In most chemical methods, for instance measuring absorption and fluorescence, scientists study millions of molecules simultaneously. The results of such experiments represent a kind of typical, average molecule. Scientists have had to accept this since nothing else has been possible, but for a long time they dreamt of measuring single molecules, because the richer and more detailed the knowledge, the greater the possibility to understand, for instance, how diseases develop.

Therefore, in 1989, when W. E. Moerner as the first scientist in the world was able to measure the light absorption of a single molecule, it was a pivotal achievement. At the time he was working at IBM Research-Almaden. The experiment opened the door to a new future and inspired many chemists to turn their attention to single molecules.

— an excerpt from The Nobel’s How the optical microscope became a nanoscope

A look back at Moerner’s work in polymers and storage at IBM


W.E. Moemer, polymer science and technology, thought he and a colleague had developed a pretty fantastic laser technique back in 1989 because it could detect for the first time the presence of a single molecule impurity held within a solid crystal (Almaden Views, Fall 1989). It was like sensing the presence of a single needle in a haystack with twice the volume of the Louisiana Superdome.

Now less than two years later Moerner and another colleague have improved the technique so much that they can now “watch” as individual impurity molecules twitch between different configurations. Because such motion is probably due to subtle changes in the host crystal which is nearly atomically stiff after being frozen to a mere 1.5 degrees above absolute zero the improved technique holds much promise for increasing scientists’ fundamental understanding of solids.

single molecules of pentacene


W.E. Moerner in polymer science led a team which demonstrated for the first time the recording of multiple holographic images in a photorefractive polymer.

photorefractive polymers

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IBM Nobel Laureates

1973 Leo Esaki, of the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, earned the Nobel Prize in Physics for work in semiconductors

“Prize motivation … for the experimental discoveries regarding tunneling phenomena in semiconductors and superconductors, respectively.” – Nobel Prize

1986 Gerd Bining and Heinrich Rohrer, of IBM Research – Zurich for the scanning tunneling microscope

“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. Read more.

1987 Georg Bednorz and Alex Müller, of IBM Research – Zurich for research in superconductivity

In the summer of 1972, a bright and energetic earth sciences student named Georg Bednorz walked into the IBM Research Laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland. He spent just three months in the lab’s physics department before returning to University to finish his education, but the experience he gained and the relationship he formed with IBM researcher, Alex Müller, would change Bednorz’s life, and the world. – Icons of Progress: High-Temperature Superconductors

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