Christoph Gerber to Receive the Kavli Prize

Professor Christoph Gerber of the Swiss Nanoscience Institute and the Department of Physics at the University of Basel has been awarded the 2016 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience together with Professor Gerd Binnig (formerly of IBM Zurich Research Laboratory) and Professor Calvin Quate (Stanford University). The award honors their invention and creation of the first atomic force microscope 30 years ago.

Since 2008, the Kavli Prize has been presented every two years to honor outstanding research in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience. It comes with prize money of one million dollars for each field of research and recipients are selected based on the recommendations of internationally renowned scientists via Kavli Foundation, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. The winners will be notified on June 2 and the ceremony will be held on September 6, 2016, in Oslo, Norway.

Atomic force microscope launched a new era

Prof. Dr. Christoph Gerber (Bild: Swiss Nanoscience Institute, Florian Moritz)
Prof. Dr. Christoph Gerber (Image: Swiss Nanoscience Institute)

Christoph Gerber, Gerd Binnig, and Calvin Quate have been selected for the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience in recognition of their development of the atomic force microscope (AFM), which heralded a new era in the research and manipulation of minute structures.

Thanks to the AFM, it is now possible to precisely map and analyze individual molecules and atoms. It also enables various physical and chemical parameters to be measured, including friction, magnetic force, and bond strength. Yet observation, mapping, and measurement are not its only functions – researchers can also use the atomic force microscope to place individual atoms precisely to create new structures. The AFM’s many potential uses have resulted in a wide range of applications. Mapping biological nanomachines at atomic resolution, developing new diagnostic sensors, and constructing tiny, novel electronic components are just a few of the examples currently being explored.

“I am absolutely delighted that Christoph Gerber has been awarded the Kavli Prize,” says Christian Schönenberger, Professor of Physics at the University of Basel and Director of the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, of the good news. “The AFM is a wonderful, versatile device that gave many areas access to the nano world for the first time and is still producing totally new applications.”

According to the press release from the Kavli Foundation, “atomic force microscopy is a powerful and versatile scientific technique that continues to advance nanoscience for the benefit of society.”

Like the arm of a record player

An atomic force microscope works on a different principle to a light microscope. It has no lenses to enlarge objects. The core of the atomic force microscope is a movable cantilever with a minute tip. In a similar way to the needle of a record player, the tip scans the sample surface line by line. Attractive and repulsive forces work between the atoms of the sample and the cantilever tip deflect the cantilever. This distortion is recorded and software calculates a digital image point by point.

A world-renowned scientist

Christoph Gerber was born in Basel in 1942. He initially trained as a precision engineer and worked for Contraves in Switzerland and Sweden. In 1966, he moved to the IBM Research Laboratory in Rüschlikon, where he began to work closely with subsequent Nobel Laureates Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd Binnig, developing a scanning tunneling microscope and, later, the atomic force microscope. In 1986, Christoph Gerber, Gerd Binnig, and Carl Quate presented the atomic force microscope for the first time in Physical Review Letters. Over the following years, his knowledge of atomic force microscopy has allowed Christoph Gerber not only to train colleagues all over the world, but also to use the AFM cantilever in diagnostics – opening up a whole new branch of research.

Christoph Gerber has received numerous awards throughout his career, including the City of Basel Science Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the renowned scientific journal Nature. He is one of the world’s 100 most-cited scientists. At the start of 2016, the International Society for Nanoscale Science, Computation, and Engineering named him the recipient of its Nano Award, and he will receive a further honorary doctorate in November 2016.

When asked about his philosophy in an interview for the SNI newsletter, Christoph Gerber responded: “Dedication and endurance are essential to scientific success. It is also very important to question dogma and to break through, to go your own way, and to work hard on your visions.”

Further information

Dr. Christel Möller, University of Basel / Swiss Nanoscience Institute (SNI), SNI Communications & Events, phone: +41 267 14 72, email:


Images of Prof. Christoph Gerber can be found in the media database.

Fred Kavli, founder of the Kavli Prize

The Kavli Prize, which is endowed with one million dollars for each research field, was sponsored by Norwegian-born entrepreneur and inventor Fred Kavli (1927–2013). He established the Kavli Foundation in 2000 in order to advance science for the benefit of humanity, engage the public in science, and support researchers in their work.