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Don Eigler – IBM

I was lucky enough to meet Don Eigler in person when he visited my University for a special lecture one day.  He actually sat down and had lunch with us as a nervous bunch of undergrads nibbled away at catered sandwiches and cans of soda.  It wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination to say that the man 'has it made'.  And yet, he is one of the humblest and friendliest scientists I've ever met.  Not too shabby for the first person in the world to spell something out with individual atoms.  He's also one of the few prominent researchers on the international scene that is employed by a large multinational firm (have you heard of IBM?).

Yes, that's right, Don Eigler made history in 1989 when he used a self-built Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) to spell out "I B M" with a dozen or so xenon atoms.  Since then, he's made groundbreaking studies in atomic-scale phenomena.  Some of his results include: the effect of magnetic impurities on the electronic structure of superconductors, electrical conductance through single-atom wires, the development of the famous 'quantum corral' electron trap, and a molecular switch.

As the story goes, Eigler received a bachelor's degree in physics back in 1975.  During our lunch he mentioned off-the-cuff that he had a 'distinguished' academic career, "Distinguished… with a few F's".  Now, I don't know if he was just cracking a joke or being serious, but I think the point is that Eigler was not your typical straight-A student.

Despite his antics as an undergraduate, he went on to receive a doctorate in physics in 1984 from the same school, UC San Diego.  From there he would go to work for AT&T Bell Labs for a few years.  In 1986, he finally settled in with IBM as a research staff member.  By 1993 (4 years after the famous atomic spelling publicity) he was named a fellow at IBM.

Even though he was visiting our school for a nanotechnology talk, he couldn't stop talking about his pet dogs and how much he loved to train them.  I think it sums up the man's character well.  He seemed to me like the average Joe who made it big, except there's nothing ordinary about him.  Eigler is an example of how far a researcher can make it in the corporate world without losing his or her autonomy as both a person and a scientist.