As a boy growing up in communist Czechoslovakia, Ondrej Krivanek idolized cosmonauts and excelled in science competitions against other whiz kids from across the Soviet Bloc. When Russian tanks rolled through the Czech capital in 1968, crushing the popular uprising called the Prague Spring, Krivanek was 18, a recent high school graduate enjoying a holiday in England before starting college.
With his family scattered across Europe and no home to return to, the teenager was suddenly a refugee in a country whose language he barely spoke.
It could have been a traumatic experience, but Krivanek responded with the flexibility and creativity that later came to mark his career in physics and helped earn him one of science’s top awards this week: The 2020 Kavli Prize for Nanoscience.
Krivanek, whose winding path eventually led him to Kirkland, is one of four laureates honored for boosting the resolution of electron microscopes, allowing the machines to visualize the structure and composition of materials at the atomic level.
“Their work is a beautiful example of scientific ingenuity, dedication and persistence,” Bodil Holst, chair of the Kavli Prize Committee in Nanoscience, said in announcing the awards. “They have enabled humanity to see where we could not see before.”
Though less well-known than the Nobel Prizes, the Kavli awards are considered equally prestigious by many scientists — and the prize money is better. Each category — nanoscience, astrophysics and neuroscience — comes with a $1 million award, split among the recipients. (The 2020 Nobel Prizes are worth about $935,000.)
The breakthroughs by Krivanek and the others revolutionized both basic science and technology, especially the semiconductor industry, Holst said in an interview. Being able to image structures at the atomic level has been key to developing new materials, catalysts, memory chips, integrated circuits and more efficient solar cells.
“In order to understand, to improve and to develop on the nanoscale, you need to see,” she said.
Krivanek’s father was also a type of visual technologist, specializing in the chemistry of color photography. His maternal grandfather designed and built motorcycles. Krivanek knew he wanted to pursue a career in science — but in 1968, it wasn’t clear anymore exactly how he would get there.
Luckily, Britons embraced the displaced Czechs and gave the teenager a scholarship to the University of Leeds. In his first year he got excellent scores in math, but barely passed physics because his English was so poor. By the time he graduated, he was at the top of his class.
It was during his doctoral studies in physics at Cambridge University that Krivanek became hooked on electron microscopes. One of the first devices he later invented to sharpen the images, called an aberration corrector, is now on display at the university’s venerable Cavendish Lab, alongside a DNA model built by Watson and Crick and an experimental apparatus used in the discovery of the electron in the late 19th century.
While electron microscopes opened the door to a new world of fine-scale detail, they had a frustrating limitation. The machines’ images were blurry — like those from the Hubble Space Telescope before correcting optics were added.
“It was like having a laser beam with a Coca-Cola bottle as a lens,” said Peter Rez, a physicist at Arizona State University who has known and collaborated with Krivanek for decades.
Unlike light microscopes, though, the lenses in electron microscopes are magnetic fields that focus the beams. Eliminating inherent aberrations in the lenses seemed so intractable some experts feared it might not be possible. Some proposed solutions included machines with more than 100 knobs, each of which had to be precisely adjusted. After several high-profile attempts at a fix failed, funding dried up.
In 1994, Krivanek got a tiny grant — about $120,000 — from the U.K.’s national science academy to take a shot at the goal that had stymied so many others.
“I thought it was a very solvable problem,” Krivanek.
By that time, he had years of experience designing and modifying instruments during stints at universities. He invited Niklas Dellby, a friend and colleague, to join the project and the two formed a partnership that lasted to this day. He and Dellby moved their families to Cambridge, where the pair spent two years on the project and emerged with the first workable corrector for a scanning transmission electron microscope.
“Electron microscopes, from the 1930s until 1997, when we made the correctors work, were like Hubble before the repair mission,” Krivanek said.
Advances in computational power were key to the breakthrough. The system uses computer-controlled electronics, instead of knobs, to make the hundreds of necessary adjustments.
The results are stunning images that can peer into crystal lattices, illuminate the architecture of amino acids, and reveal the internal structure that gives jewels their luster.
“The fact that you can see the individual atoms in materials, the individual building blocks that we are made of — it’s astonishing,” Holst said.
But the $4 million machines built today at Nion, the company Krivanek and Dellby founded in Kirkland, are far more than magnification devices. Over the years, the team has incorporated instruments like spectrometers that can analyze samples, instead of just look at them.
“The idea is that you don’t just use the electron microscope to take pretty pictures,” Rez said. “You use it to do chemical analysis.”
He describes Krivanek as a technical perfectionist, whose work has elevated the entire field. “He has done more for electron microscopy than anyone since the inventor of the technology.”
But Krivanek also has a bit of the daredevil in him, Rez said.
When they were working together at the University of California, Berkeley, Krivanek would drag Rez with him to hike the surrounding hills, speeding to their destination in a Fiat with questionable tires. Krivanek celebrated his 50th birthday by climbing Mount Rainier.
“He’s always up for some crazy adventure,” Rez said. “That’s his nature — irrepressible.”
The Kavli Prize ceremony is normally a gala affair, with tuxedos and gowns and medals presented by the king of Norway. But Krivanek and his fellow laureates, including the three German scientists also being honored for their work on electron microscopes, will have to wait two years and share the spotlight. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the ceremony is being postponed until the next round of prize winners is announced in 2022.