Science: Macromolecules & Phase

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This year's Nobel Prize in chemistry went to Hermann Staudinger, 72, of Freiburg, West Germany, who is considered the father of the study of macro-molecules. When he started his work, many organic compounds were known to contain large groups of atoms, but these were considered mere mechanical clumpings of smaller molecular groups. Dr. Staudinger showed that they are true molecules, their thousands of atoms hooked together in definite patterns.

Out of this discovery grew such great modern industries as plastics and artificial fibers, as well as new understanding of the way that nature builds the complex compounds in living organisms.

Dr. Fritz Zernike, 65, of Groningen, The Netherlands, won the Nobel Prize in physics for his invention of the phase contrast microscope. Ordinary microscopes work by shooting light through the objects to be examined. If some of the light is absorbed or reflected, the object shows up as a dark area against a bright background. The trouble is that many microscopic things, especially living cells and organisms, are almost perfectly transparent. Unless they are stained, which generally kills them, they do not show up well.

Dr. Zernike's microscope works on a different principle. The material in even the most transparent organism generally differs in density from the fluid around it, and light travels at slightly different speed through materials of different density. The phase contrast microscope contains special screens that make the speed difference visible. Transparent amoebae and bacilli, unstained and still kicking vigorously, show up well in its field.

When Dr. Zernike took his invention to the great Carl Zeiss Works at Jena, Germany in 1932, he was told: "It is impractical, and if it were not, we would have produced it already." But when U.S. troops reached Jena in 1945, they found micropictures taken with Dr. Zernike's system. Since then it has been adopted by laboratories all over the world.