Interview with Stefan Hell – For me, Pioneering is …

What specifically prompted you to develop 4Pi and STED technology in partnership with Leica Microsystems? Who took the first step to get the project rolling?

I filed a patent application for 4Pi microscopy back in 1990. In 1996, the head of development at the time, Dr. Johann Engelhardt, and the erstwhile managing director of Leica Lasertechnik in Heidelberg, Dr. Thomas Zapf, decided to acquire the rights to it and develop it in the following years. Both had the foresight to recognize that the future of optical microscopy lies beyond the diffraction limit. After all, resolution is by far the most important property of a microscope. Everything else is secondary – the purpose of a microscope is, after all, to resolve minute details. Unfortunately, that gets forgotten from time to time.

It’s understandable, because there haven’t been any significant breakthroughs in more than 100 years – just marginal improvements. That’s why microscope development has concentrated on secondary aspects such as perfecting the illumination, enlarging the image filed and improving brightness, mechanical precision, computerization and ease of use. Resolution has simply always been what it was. But different rules will apply in the future: a research microscope can feature the best possible ease of use, plenty of contrast methods, sophisticated program control and every conceivable convenience – but if it doesn’t deliver maximum resolution, it’s missing the point. Show a potential customer a sharper image and you Won’t need to deliver a long sales speech. Conversely, market demand dwindles rapidly for instruments that doesn’t boast the best possible resolution. I expect quite a shakeup in the coming years.

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