Three scientists; Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and will share a $1.1 million award.

Back in the 1990s, each of the men, working independently of one another, destroyed the limits of what was thought possible on the resolution of optical microscopes.

Diffraction limit, a fundamental law of optics, has long stood in the way of improving resolution of optical microscopes. Basically, the resolution cannot exceed half the wavelength of light being observed.

Breaking the law of physics is a no-no, but you can work around it. The three men realized they could bypass the diffraction limit by using glowing molecules to enhance the resolution.

The three scientists were awarded the prize for their work in “having bypassed a presumed scientific limitation stipulating that an optical microscope can never yield a resolution better than 0.2 micrometres. Using the fluorescence of molecules, scientists can now monitor the interplay between individual molecules inside cells; they can observe disease-related proteins aggregate and they can track cell division at the nanolevel,” according to the citation from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Check out the image below to see what was once the limit for scientists viewing cells through optical microscopes.

diffraction limit

The citation offers in-depth details on how each scientist achieved higher resolution in microscopes. Or, you can watch the announcement below.

Their discovery gives hope to the millions struck by debilitating disease such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Without the discovery, researchers would not be able to observe these diseases at a molecular level.

More Nobel Prizes will be handed out in the coming days. The prize in literature will be announced tomorrow, and the much-followed Nobel Peace Prize comes on Friday.

Image credit: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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