I’ve had the good fortune to interview half a dozen or more Nobel Prize winners, either before or after their awards. They’ve been universally humble, informative, and courteous. If each of them were incarnated as a television avatar, they’d all be Fred Rogers, putting on the slippers and sweater and settling in to chat about reaction chemistry, electron degeneracy pressure, optical trapping, whatever. Monday of this week we got a little more of the same at the CLEO Conference opening plenaries. Stefan Hell and W.E. Moerner both gave very informative discussions about their super-resolution microscopy techniques. Then Eric Betzig took the podium, and step aside Teresa Giudice, because the real Nobel Prize Winners of Ashburn, Virginia was on the air.

“The Nobel committee made a f***king mistake,” he said.

Tell us how you really feel, Dr. Betzig.

It was rather refreshing, especially because I happen to agree with him about the particular mistake he was referring to at that moment (I’m sure that will make him feel better). The mistake was the omission of Mats Gustafsson’s work developing Structured Illumination Microscopy. Mats himself was not eligible because he died of brain cancer in 2011, but having reported on both his and Stefan Hell’s work when they were first making news and beyond, I thought both developments deserved to share the Nobel. After that, I have to admit that the field was so crowded with super-resolution techniques that I wouldn’t have been able to pick out PALM, STORM, or NSOM from whatever other alphabet soup localization methods were being developed; so I’m glad people much smarter than me were able to pick out Drs. Moerner and Betzig for recognition.
But back to Betzig’s point: there are a variety of methods out there, including those honored with the Nobel Award, but we can get so caught up in the race to better resolution that we forget to evaluate other aspects equally (or more) important for performance. Specifically, if the goal is to measure processes in living cells then many of the super-resolution techniques aren’t optimum because of long exposure times, high illumination intensities, and/or the need to fix (i.e., kill) cells. According to Betzig, although SIM may not be able to quote the resolution numbers of some of these other methods, SIM’s performance in live cell imaging speaks for itself.

SIM image compared to conventional fluorescence.

The structured illumination microscopy image on the right shows far more detail than possible with the conventional fluorescence image on the upper left, even when computationally enhanced as in the lower left. Image courtesy of the Singapore Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

Betzig also lamented the fact that his colleague Harald Hess — who had essentially shared equally in the work they did developing localization microscopy methods — was unable to share in the prize. And when it comes down to it, Betzig’s complaints really come down to one thing: the Nobel Award is limited to three recipients, and, while the Nobel is designed to recognize outstanding achievement, it has the unintended (and sometimes undeserved) consequence of classifying other work as less outstanding. Of course, this isn’t limited to Nobel Prizes — the same classification goes for sports figures, novelists, movie directors. It’s the Oscar-winning film that gets re-booked into theaters, while other equally good or better films don’t get the extra boost they deserve. There is a fine line (and some element of chance and, yes, human error) that separates the “winners” from the “losers.” Betzig brought to our attention how arbitrary that line is and is encouraging us not to allow ourselves to relegate SIM to second-class status just because it wasn’t acknowledged with a Nobel Award.

And if it takes a little colorful language to bring that to our attention — Hey, I’m not going to argue with him; he just got a Nobel Prize.