Betzig will discuss historical connections between astronomy and microscopy on Dec. 12.

Physicist and engineer Eric Betzig will deliver a public lecture titled “All Things Great and Small: Historical Connections Between Astronomy and Microscopy” at HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, VA.

Betzig, who is a group leader at Janelia, will speak on Wednesday, December 12, 2012, at 7 PM. The lecture, part of an ongoing series called “Dialogues of Discovery at Janelia Farm,” is free and open to the public, but tickets are required for admission. Directions for obtaining tickets are available on the Janelia website at Seating is limited to 250 people. Doors will open at 6:30 PM.

Since the twin inventions of the microscope and telescope more than 400 years ago, our understanding of the universe and our place within it has expanded enormously. Betzig will describe some of the key players in this saga, and how technological innovations to see the most distant bodies in space have made it possible to see the minute features within our own bodies.

At Janelia, Betzig develops novel optical imaging tools for molecular, cellular, and neurobiology. A pioneer in the development of near-field microscopy for ultra-high resolution optical imaging, Betzig spent six years at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, where he was the first to image sub-cellular details beyond the so-called “diffraction limit.” Light particles travel as waves, and because of the diffraction limit, scientists thought that microscopes wouldn't be able to see specimens—such as a protein within a cell—that are less than half the wavelength of light. Betzig and his colleagues were also the first to image single fluorescent molecules—a key methodology in modern biophysics.

Growing disillusioned with both the near-field technique and academic science in general, he left Bell Labs and eventually joined his father’s machine tool company in Michigan, where he spent seven years developing and then marketing a new motion control technology capable of moving automated cutting tools with unprecedented speed and precision. However, the technology proved to be a commercial failure.

Unemployed, Betzig considered how best to return to scientific research outside the path of traditional academia. Together with his friend and colleague Harald Hess, they devised a new and simpler approach to optical imaging of cells at near-molecular resolution, termed photoactivated localization microscopy, or PALM. Using their own money, they built the initial prototype in Hess’ living room in La Jolla, California, before testing the method with collaborators at the National Institutes of Health. Today, most commercial microscope manufacturers offer variants of PALM technology.

In 2005, Betzig became one the first group leaders at Janelia, where he and his colleagues continue to develop new microscope technologies to address the limitations that become apparent when tackling challenging biological problems. One of these uses adaptive optics, a technology originally developed to improve the view of telescopes peering through Earth’s murky and turbulent atmosphere, but now applied to image the architecture and activity of neural connections in the brains of living mice. Another uses Bessel beams, ultra-thin pencils of light similar to those used in supermarket bar-code scanners, to rapidly image the complex three-dimensional dynamics within single living cells.

Recent speakers in the “Dialogues of Discovery” series have included Sir Paul Nurse, President of The Royal Society; Karel Svoboda, a group leader at Janelia Farm; Roger Perlmutter, former Executive Vice President for Research and Development at Amgen, Inc.; Leslie Vosshall, HHMI investigator at The Rockefeller University; and Sean B. Carroll, HHMI vice president for Science Education.

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Jim Keeley 301.215.8858