How we learned to see atoms precisely

Kavli Prize for physics professor Harald Rose and long-standing research colleagues


The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has announced the 2020 Kavli Prize winners who will be honoured for groundbreaking discoveries in astrophysics, nanosciences and neurosciences. The highly prestigious Kavli Prize for Nanosciences, worth one million US dollars, is shared by Professor Harald Rose (TU Darmstadt and University of Ulm) with his colleagues Maximilian Haider, Knut Urban and Ondrej Krivanek.

Professor Harald Rose.

It is not so long ago that atoms had something almost mystical about them. Until the 1980s, nobody had seen them with their own eyes. No electron microscope was powerful and precise enough to make the unimaginably tiny building blocks of matter visible. Physicists tried in vain to improve the image definition of electron microscopes to such an extent that they could resolve atoms. But Professor Harald Rose succeeded in the late 1980s with a stroke of genius that was to make the atoms and their interactions visible for electron microscopes.

The scientist at the Institute of Applied Physics at the TU Darmstadt designed what can be seen as spectacles for the electron microscope – a method that directed misguided electron beams blurring and distorting the image onto the right track. Together with Maximilian Haider, who did his doctorate with Rose and founded the company CEOS GmbH, and Knut Urban from Forschungszentrum Jülich, Rose put theory and invention into practice. On the basis of the ever more refined findings and technologies, Ondrej Krivanek realised the first ultra-precise scanning transmission electron microscope.

“Enabled humanity to see where we could not see before”

For their achievements Rose, Haider and Urban received the highly respected Wolf Prize in 2011. Now, they have once again been awarded an outstanding prize for “aberration-corrected lenses in electron microscopes that have created the ability for researchers worldwide to see the structure and chemical composition of materials in three dimensions on unprecedentedly short-length scales”. According to Bodil Holst, Chairman of the Kavli Prize Committee for Nanosciences, the scientists have “enabled humanity to see where we could not see before”. Their research and technology “have transformed industry and our lives.”