Thomas Jefferson High School Historical Preservation Society

The Scientist: ‘71 graduate discovered how to measure single molecules | by Ken Rodriguez '77

Sat, April 12, 2014 10:16 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

He walked into my living room to prepare for a TV quiz show. He was lean and confident and wore the perfect accoutrement for a teenager equally skilled at discussing science, mathematics or crushing you in a debate: black, horned-rim glasses.

W.E. Moerner looked and sounded every bit as intelligent as his reputation. My mother, Blanche, had told me all about him. She did not use the word “genius.” But she spun such incredible and vivid anecdotes about him that it was impossible not to reach that conclusion.

As senior counselor at Jefferson, my mother worked closely with Moerner and his cohort of brilliant friends. On this day in 1971, the four Jeff team members came to our house to practice for “On The Spot,” a local quiz show produced by Frank Rosengren (Class of 1944) that featured opposing high school teams answering questions about current events. Moerner does not recall the school Jefferson faced that day. Nor does he remember the outcome. But I remember this: Jefferson won easily.

My mother told me that Moerner had received a full scholarship to attend Washington University in Missouri. That was in 1971. I never heard about him again until last year when I came upon his name on the internet. I learned he had become chemistry department chair at Stanford University. I also learned that he had won the Wolf Prize in chemistry. I found two online reporters who predicted him as a future Nobel Prize winner.

As a researcher for IBM In the late 1980s, Moerner and his postdoctoral scholar from Germany, Lothar Kador, used a laser to study the behavior of molecules. At the time, molecules could not be measured or detected individually. They had to be measured in huge aggregates of clusters of millions or billions. Using precision laser spectroscopic techniques, Moerner and Kador were the first to detect a single molecule in condensed matter with light.

“We removed all averaging over a large ensemble of assumed identical molecules,” Moerner explains. “It’s very much like saying that the average house in the United States is 1,000 square feet. But we know there is tremendous variation and individual differences in the houses. That’s the way it was before this experiment to detect and measure molecules, one by one. It represents the ultimate detection limit. It lets us test whether all molecules are identical or slightly different in various ways.”

The optical study of single molecules has since become widely used in chemistry, physics and biology. In 2008, Moerner received the Wolf Prize for his discovery. The prize, awarded to scientists as well as artists, is considered second in importance to the Nobel Prize. More than 30 Wolf Prize recipients have gone on to win the Nobel in medicine, physics and chemistry.

My late mother (Class of 1950) would be proud. She would not be surprised. The stories she told about Moerner pointed to a future as bright as the laser that would detect a single molecule. What mom admired most was Moerner’s diverse talents and broad range of interests. He played the bassoon in the marching band. He served as editor of “Each Has Spoken” and president of the National Honor Society. He worked on the stage crew, competed on the debate team and served as Sgt. of Arms in BiPhyChem. He was a member of Masque & Gavel, Quill & Scroll, the Forum, the Russian Toastmasters, the Radio club and the Sophomore Scholastic Society. He was a National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT) finalist.

“There were no aspirations for greatness when I was at Jeff,” Moerner says. “I was just having fun learning. I  enjoyed mathematics and science and was involved in a whole bunch of activities.”

Mom encouraged Moerner to apply for the prestigious Langsdorf Fellowship from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Washington University. He not only applied for and received it, W.E. squeezed every ounce of learning possible from the award. Moerner earned three bachelor’s degrees in four years: one in electrical engineering, one in physics, one in mathematics, all with highest honors.

He later earned a master’s and doctorate in physics from Cornell. Then he went to IBM Research and made history. International acclaim followed. Scientific bloggers began predicting a Nobel in his future. Whether he wins the prize or not, Moerner’s single molecule legacy is secure.

As the “Everyday Scientist” blog noted in 2012, “Single-molecule imaging has matured into an important technique in biophysics. Just go to a Biophysical Society meeting and see all the talks and posters with ‘single molecule’ in the title!”

Once, 43 years ago, a horned-rimmed high school senior walked into my living room to prepare for a quiz show. Days later, when the TV lights flashed on and the contest began, viewers got a glimpse of a young man who would change the world of science

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