One of my favorite science historians, Daniel Kevles, has a brief, insightful New Yorker piece that puts this year’s chemistry Nobel Prize in context:
Trying to see the fine structure of a cell with a light microscope is akin to attempting to discern the individual trees in a forest from a jetliner at thirty thousand feet.
Kevles explains how Betzig and Hell were obsessed with breaking the “Abbe limit,” the physical principle that the resolution of light microscopes is limited to the wavelength of light. Each of them figured out how to “argue with the laws of physics,” using some brilliant tricks with fluorescence. To someone outside of biology it may sound strange, but the development of fluorescent imaging and tagging technologies is turning out to be one of the most important developments in the history of biology, at least as revolutionary as the initial development of the microscope.