Three questions with recent Nobel laureate W. E. Moerner

In 1989, alumnus W. E. ­Moerner, AB ’75, BS ’75, BS ’75, became the first scientist in the world to measure the light absorption of a single molecule, a task long thought to be impossible. Twenty-five years later in October 2014, Moerner won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for his breakthrough.

Moerner, PhD, the Harry S. Mosher Professor of Chemistry and professor by courtesy of applied physics at ­Stanford University, along with 2014’s two other chemistry ­Nobel laureates, advanced the field of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy. Now, microscopes can see cells on a nanolevel, thanks to techniques that ­Moerner and ­others pioneered.

Moerner returned to campus in fall 2015 to give the Weissman Lecture. We spoke with him and asked what it was like to win the world’s top prize.

What was it like to get the call?
When I got the call, I was in ­Brazil. I was there for a conference, but my phone was not working and so the Nobel committee couldn’t call me directly. So I did not get the call. My wife got the call from the Associated Press in California. My wife … sent me a quick message on What’s App, which works on Wi-Fi. This was about 7 o’clock in the morning. I quickly canceled going to the conference and tried to grab a jacket and tie, because I knew there was going to be a flood of interviews. It was incredibly exciting, an incredible moment to realize, “Wow, can this really be true?” There was a lot of evidence it was, so I had to believe it.

About W. E. Moerner

  • Moerner attended the university as a Langsdorf Engineering Fellow. He called it a “watershed experience.”
  • An electrical engineering major, Moerner enjoyed his physics and math courses so much, he earned degrees in all three, all with top honors.
  • While still an undergraduate, Moerner ­co-authored papers with his mentor James G. Miller, PhD, the Albert Gordon Hill ­Professor of Physics, and ­attended conferences.

What is the ceremony like?
Winning the prize involves going to Stockholm, Sweden, and spending a number of days there, very exciting days filled with amazing events. There was a concert. There was a huge banquet in the city hall of Stockholm for 1,200 people. There was another banquet the day afterward in the palace with the king and the queen, and there, of course, is the ceremony, which is the most important part of the week. It occurs always on ­December 10. And it … does get rehearsed properly, because you have to do these very difficult things like walking toward the king, taking the prize, bowing properly, and turning and not doing any high fives. [Laughs]

How has your life changed?
I have a responsibility because of the prize to communicate science to the public to help explain some of the complexities of this particular prize [as well as] science on a broader level. There’s [also] an opportunity to learn about some other important areas that I might not have been an expert in before. One of the issues that I’m concerned about is climate change. So I’ve been to a couple of meetings where Nobel laureates work with atmospheric scientists to try and understand some of the key issues. And there [have been] some public declarations by the Nobel laureates. So that’s an important aspect of winning the Nobel Prize. I have to weave my research in with other responsibilities to the larger community.

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