In 1988, IBM researcher William Moerner became the first person to use spectroscopy to optically detect an absorber molecule within a solid. Reporters at the time likened the achievement to finding a needle in a haystack — but the metaphor undersold the complexity. Detecting a single molecule within a crystal lattice was more like finding that needle in a pile of hay the size of two football stadiums. “We’ve opened a new door to spectroscopy that promises to yield some of the most closely held secrets of solids,” Moerner told the Almaden Views, IBM’s internal newsletter, shortly after his discovery.
The ramifications have been profound. Moerner’s discovery and subsequent refinements to super-resolved fluorescence microscopy earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 and paved the way for modern optical storage.
Moerner’s research changed what kind of information could be recorded and accessed digitally. Memory systems that had previously been limited to spreadsheets and text documents expanded to hold and transport music, movies, maps and more — creating new applications for digital data that laid the groundwork for the modern tech industry.
From a young age, Moerner took an interest in dissecting new forms of communication. A former Eagle Scout who grew up in Pleasanton, California, he was fascinated by amateur radio and earned his operator’s license as a teenager. He continued the hobby through college at Washington University in St. Louis and as a graduate student at Cornell, where he earned his PhD in physics.
Moerner came to IBM’s Almaden research facility in 1981 to work on an evergreen scientific dilemma: How can we know what’s inside a solid object — whether it be a crystal, a bone or an electronic component — without breaking it open?
Previous solutions relied on creating images of solid interiors using chemical processes like absorption and fluorescence to detect millions of molecules simultaneously. For decades, these were a scientist’s best tools to probe the structures of opaque materials. But they only provided a picture of a substance’s average molecule. While helpful, it was the rough equivalent of understanding that a homemade waffle was 70% cooked without being able to find the pockets of raw batter.
Spectroscopy built on these techniques by focusing radiation to peer into objects. Because different materials absorb certain frequencies of light while remaining transparent to others, scientists could attenuate a laser or other beam of radiation to a precise frequency, thereby illuminating the millions of molecules within a solid that responded to that frequency.
At the time, detecting a single molecule within a solid was considered the elusive “holy grail” of spectroscopy, a theoretical limit to detection technology that scientists strived for without being able to reach — until 1988. That year at Almaden, Moerner and visiting researcher Lothar Kador used a laser to pinpoint a single absorber molecule among 10 trillion inert molecules within a crystal lattice. Their technique not only allowed them to isolate the properties of this molecule but also enabled them to measure how those properties changed in response to microscopic fluctuations in the solid itself.
When Moerner joined IBM Research, the company’s flagship disk drive at the time — the IBM 3380 — could hold 5 gigabytes of data. It was also the size of a refrigerator, weighed 550 pounds, and came with a price tag starting at USD 81,000. Moerner’s research radically changed all that.
Optical media like CDs and DVDs may be receding into the past today, but during the years Moerner was conducting his research, that technology was little more than a theoretical concept. A 1985 article discussing Moerner’s early efforts at IBM mentioned the “astounding” possibility of storing a terabyte of information on a single optical disk, a possibility that Moerner’s research would make real 25 years later. His discoveries in spectroscopy, along with his subsequent advances in laser holography and spectral hole-burning as a project leader at IBM between 1989 and 1995, led to a new form of data storage that relied on light rather than magnetism.
Using precise patterns of microscopic divots on a reflective surface, optical media could store information at a density nearly 4,000 times that of magnetic tape. It was a massive leap forward in storage technology that eventually made possible audio CDs, CD-ROMs and DVDs. These optical media dramatically increased both the quality and efficiency of digital storage, supporting the rapid increases in computing power that consumers enjoyed during the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century.
Throughout his tenure at IBM, Moerner remained an active member of the ham radio community, which comprised more than 45,000 licensed operators in the United States. During his time off from the laboratory at Almaden, he created a system called ARES, or Amateur Radio Emergency Service, which allowed radio operators to connect their transmitters to computer databases, providing networked communication to relief organizations during public emergencies, when phone lines were often jammed.
In his spare time, Moerner also developed a radio and computer system called FINDER (Family Information Database for Emergency Responders) to help the California Department of Forestry track the locations of firefighters and volunteers during wildfires. Moerner donated several hours a week to emergency organizations in California, particularly the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross. Describing his charitable work, he said, “The question is, how do you donate your skills in the best way?”
Moerner retired from his project manager position at IBM in 1995 and moved into academia — first as the Distinguished Chair in Physical Chemistry at the University of California, San Diego, and then as a researcher at Stanford University. Moerner’s discoveries helped make possible a boom in the power and accessibility of personal computing technology. His career spanned a time when 5 gigabytes of storage required a quarter-ton cabinet and cost as much as a sports car, to a consumer environment in which a typical family kept 20 times as much data on their movie shelf.
At IBM, Moerner brought the future home.
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