Stanford University

News Service



CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (415) 723-2558

R&D Magazine names Calvin Quate its Scientist of the Year

STANFORD -- R&D Magazine has named professor of applied physics Calvin F. Quate its 30th Scientist of the Year.

He was cited as "the genius behind acoustic and atomic force microscopy and the inspiration for a $100 million instrument industry" by the magazine's editorial board and editors who chose him.

Quate's selection was announced in the magazine's July issue. The award will be presented Sept. 18 at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry as part of the magazine's R&D 100 awards celebration.

Quate is the second Stanford researcher to be so honored. In 1981, the magazine awarded the title to William E. Spicer, now professor emeritus of electrical engineering.

"We pride ourselves in trying to pick scientists in line for the Nobel Prize before they are chosen," said Robert Cassidy, editor-in-chief. The magazine also stresses industry connections, such as Quate's position as a member of the board of directors of Park Scientific Instruments of Sunnyvale.

Quate grew up in a remote area of Nevada, where he attended a one-room schoolhouse. He graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1944 and completed his doctorate at Stanford six years later. His first position was at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey. He joined the Stanford faculty in 1961 and in 1986 was named the Leland T. Edwards Professor in the School of Engineering.

His interest in microscopy began with a recognition that acoustic waves had similar wavelengths to those of the light used in optical microscopes. By 1973 Quate and colleague Ross Lemons had invented the scanning acoustic microscope, which generated sound by turning an electrical signal into a pressure wave. The sound waves traveled through a sapphire crystal and a spherical lens that focused them on a liquid-filled cell in which the sample was mounted.

Acoustic microscopy enabled scientists to see through optically opaque materials, ranging from silicon chips to chicken embryos. The technique also let researchers measure important properties such as elasticity and hardness.

Quate's switch to another type of microscopy came in 1985. During a trans-Atlantic flight he read a journal article about a new type of microscope, called the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), that had just been invented by IBM researchers in Zurich. The new instrument made images of the surfaces of electrically conducting materials by scanning an extremely fine needle across the surface. When the needle is positioned very close to the surface, but not touching it, a special kind of electrical current, called a tunnelling current, flows between the two. By moving the needle up and down to keep the current constant while scanning across the surface, the device was able to make highly detailed images of surface characteristics that reveal features as small as individual atoms.

The idea for a related instrument that would work in a similar manner but would not be limited to electrically conducting materials came to Quate during the flight to London. He made contact with the IBM Zurich team and visited them a few months later. Through discussions with STM co-inventor Gerd Binnig and other IBM researchers, the design of the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) took shape.

Instead of relying on variations in the tunnelling current to trace surface contours, the AFM traced surface contours by moving the tip up and down to maintain a constant pressure between the tip and the surface. Because it can provide atomic level detail of the surfaces of non- conducting materials, including biological tissue, AFM has found application in a large number of research fields. Commercial instruments are being manufactured and sold by four different companies.


LID, PW, BAN, ENGSCI physic quate


This is an archived release.

This release is not available in any other form. Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
Stanford News Service has an extensive library of images, some of which may be available to you online. Direct your request by EMail to

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use | Copyright Complaints