Renowned physicist and nanotechnologist Dr Don Eigler on moving atoms and the importance of fun.
- “Manipulating atoms was not a particular area which I had set out for myself. In someways it happened by accident.”
- “Having fun – enjoying yourself at what you’re doing – does bring out the best in you and it makes your life just so much more enjoyable. It’s important.”
- “[There] are huge questions that lie in front of us and they are just waiting for somebody. If anyone wants to be a sleuth – go get ‘em! The questions are out there.”
Don Eigler is a revolutionary physicist. He was the first person to move individual atoms with a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) while working at the IBM Almaden Research Center. His work is at the very heart of nanotechnology and he continues to push the boundaries of physics and nanoscience. Dr Eigler has been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Warwick in honour of his achievements in scientific research.
Talking about the discovery that it was possible to move atoms, Dr Eigler said: “One doesn’t plan one’s life around these things – manipulating atoms was not a particular goal which I had set out for myself. In someways it happened by accident. It was a result of the research that I wanted to do just happened to also put me and my team in a position where it was just right in front of us – so it was like – ‘hey we think we can move atoms – let’s move them and see what happens!’ That’s the way it worked!
- Listen to an exclusive interview with Dr Eigler:
“We did not set out to move atoms, but there was years and years of very hard work and research to put ourselves in a position to explore aspects of nature which no one had ever looked at before. That came about because of our efforts to build a tunnelling microscope that operated at very low temperatures. It opened up this very broad vista of new possibilities and in that vista, right in front of us, was atom manipulation.”
Don Eigler is described as a patient, methodical scientist who is happy getting his hands dirty, building his own equipment and components and enjoying the process. It took him 18 months to build the low temperature, ultra-high vacuum STM that he used to claim his place in history as the first person ever to move and control a single atom. The enthusiasm with which he approached this work is recorded in his lab notebooks.
He said: “As scientists working in the laboratory it is imperative that we keep a lab notebook where we record what we’re doing and usually it’s pretty dry stuff – we’re writing down data, numbers, how we have adjusting things and how things are changing. I think I had just picked up and put down an atom for the third time – we always have to show reproducibility in science or else it’s not science – and I just really wanted to record how I felt at that moment in my laboratory notebook – and I was really having fun, so I wrote down in very big letters scribbled all across my notebook at that time: “I’m really having fun!”
“[Fun] is not something that we talk about, in the sense that [we don’t say] now I’m going to design my career to really have fun or, as a university professor talking to your students, you don’t say let’s design your life and make sure you’re having fun doing it. It’s not the way we approach things, and yet, it is without doubt a hugely important component of our professional lives – and our non-professional lives. Having fun – enjoying yourself at what you’re doing – does bring out the best in you and it makes your life just so much more enjoyable. It’s important.”
Giving advice to young people interested in a career in science, and specifically physics, he said: “Not that I’m an expert on giving advice but if you were to twist my arm and force me to give advice to any young scientist, it would be to find out what it is about science that you really love doing – then try like hell to make that a component of your daily life as a scientist, and then if you can do that, good things will happen!
“Every science has its own unique things to offer a person and it’s just a matter of [finding] where your interests lie. In my case, even when I was really young, I was fascinated by how things work. I was always designing and building things and trying to get them to do something. That grew into a desire to try and understand how the natural world worked and that of course leads directly to physics.
“There is so much in physics to be explored still. Many people think we know it all. In my view anyone who thinks we are close to knowing it all is failing to ask themselves about what it is they don’t understand.
“We’re nowhere near the boundaries. We keep on coming up with unexplained things. Some of the big mysteries we confront today are how to unify the theories of gravity with quantum mechanics. What is dark matter? What is dark energy? These are huge questions that lie in front of us and they are just waiting for somebody. If anyone wants to be a sleuth – go get em! The questions are out there.”
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