Zernike, Frits (World of Forensic Science)
Frits Zernike was a pioneer in forensic science; his invention of the phase-contrast microscope enabled scientists to study living tissue samples under magnification for the first time. Zernike won the 1953 Nobel Prize in physics for his invention.
Zernike's background in statistical mathematics and thermodynamics was responsible for his groundbreaking discovery. A conventional microscope utilizes ordinary light, and under these instruments living tissues, particularly transparent ones, are not visible unless stained. Yet staining usually kills the specimen or produces artifacts that are impossible to differentiate from the specimen. The phase-contrast technique can reveal variations in opacity as well as variations in the thickness of transparent objects.
Born on July 16, 1888, in Amsterdam, Zernike was the son of two mathematicians, Carl Frederick August Zernike and Antje Dieperink Zernike. Early in life he was recognized for his mathematical abilities. He received both his B.S. and his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Amsterdam, and he worked at an astronomy laboratory while pursuing his graduate studies. His doctoral thesis, "Critical Opalescence, Theoretical and Experimental," quickly established him as a leader in his field. In 1915 he was appointed lecturer in theoretical physics at the University of Groningen. In 1920, he was promoted to professor, where he remained for the rest of his career.
It was while working in the field of astronomy that Zernike first discovered the advantages of phase-contrast techniques. Irregularities on the surfaces of the curved mirrors of telescopes were a common problem at that time; these mirrors sometimes produced "ghost" images and Zernike hypothesized that they were caused by out-of-phase wavelengths. If he could somehow bring direct and diffracted images back into phase, perhaps these aberrations would disappear. He developed a glass plate with tiny grooves etched in it to be placed in the focal plane of the telescope; he called this a phase plate. His experiment worked: when looking through the phase plate, the out-of-phase areas became clearly visible. Zernike published these findings in 1934, and by 1935 he was applying these same principles to microscopes, which he knew had optical problems that were similar to telescopes.
Although the practical applications of Zernike's findings seem obvious now, it was some years before he could find a manufacturer for a phase-contrast microscope. He first approached the German company, Carl Zeiss, in 1932. Finally, in 1941, Carl Zeiss agreed to produce the instrument. But it was not untilAmerican troops arrived in Germany in 1945 and discovered photomicrographs taken by a phase-contrast microscope that Zernike's instrument received worldwide attention. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1953, the phase-contrast microscope was cited as being a key to insights into cancer research.
Though the phase-contrast microscope is considered his crowning achievement, Zernike is also known for other work. Early in his career he invented the Zernike galvanometer, an instrument used to detect and measure small electrical currents. The Zernike polynomials are a method he developed regarding the wave theory of light, and are widely used by mathematicians. He also made many improvements in infrared and ultraviolet spectroscopy, as well as in the construction of the electromagnet.
Although Zernike stayed at his alma mater for his entire career, he was a visiting professor of physics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1948. In 1950 he was elected to the Royal Microscopical Society of London, and he was presented with the Rumford Medal of the British Royal Society in 1952.
Zernike married Dora van Bommel van Vloten in 1929. The couple had two children; his wife died in 1944. In 1954, Zernike married L. Koperberg-Baanders. He retired in 1958 and died in Groningen on March 10, 1966.
SEE ALSO Microscopes; Spectroscopy.