2010 Kavli Prize Laureates in Nanoscience

Awarded to Donald M. Eigler, Nadrian C. Seeman

"for their development of unprecedented methods to control matter on the nanoscale"

2010 Kavli Priize Laureates in NanoscienceTHE 2010 KAVLI PRIZE IN NANOSCIENCE is awarded to Donald Eigler and Nadrian Seeman "for their development of unprecedented methods to control matter on the nanoscale."

A central theme of nanoscience is the ability to control the arrangements and patterns of matter on a very small scale. The aim is to put specific atomic, molecular, and nanoscale species where we want them, and when we want them there. With such control, it is possible to understand complex systems and to build new structures from the ground up with desired functions.

A seminal development in the field of nanoscience occurred when Donald Eigler demonstrated a specific case where it was possible to pick up and place individual atoms at will. In the lecture that presaged the field of nanotechnology by decades, Richard Feynman famously said, “But I am not afraid to consider the final question as to whether, ultimately – in the great future – we can arrange the atoms the way we want; the very atoms, all the way down! What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them (within reason, of course; you can’t put them so that they are chemically unstable, for example) … The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.”

Donald Eigler is recognized with the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience for the development of Atom Manipulation with the STM and for the elucidation and demonstration of quantum phenomena with precisely controlled atomic and molecular arrangements on surfaces. 

Decades later, Eigler realized this vision. The invention of the scanning tunneling microscope by Binnig and Rohrer provided a tool that could be used to observe individual atoms. Shortly after, using a low-temperature scanning tunneling microscope, Eigler began to investigate the properties of individual atoms deposited on a metal surface. Soon he found that when he dropped the tip close to the surface, an atom would jump from the surface to the tip. After “picking up” one atom, he could release it back to the surface in another location, by applying a voltage pulse. In 1989, he showed that he could perform these operations repeatedly, in a controlled fashion, so as to write words with atoms. This represents a breakthrough in the history of the control of matter. 

Eigler subsequently used atom manipulation to create a whole field of quantum engineering. First, he showed the formation of “quantum corrals,” based on creating a circle of 48 Fe atoms with a diameter of 14,3 nm on a Cu surface. The natural electron waves on the Cu surface were confined by the Fe atoms, leading to a well-defined quantum wave pattern. This provided a quantitative tool for learning how these electrons were interacting with their environment and provided compelling images of the wave properties of electrons. Eigler also demonstrated the formation of “quantum mirages,” in which the quantum behavior of electrons confined to an elliptical shape were investigated.

Eigler demonstrated the ability to manipulate molecules as well as atoms. He fabricated and operated novel logic circuits made from carbon monoxide molecules on a Cu surface. He showed that these molecules could be made to shift their orientation on the surface. When the molecules were adjacent, shifting one molecule could result in a cascade of shifting events. Using this, Eigler demonstrated all of the logic elements and circuits required to perform the one time calculation of an arbitrary logic function. These were the first computational structures in which all of the components necessary for computation were at the nanometer length scale; it served to underscore the importance of investigating alternative modes of computation in nanometer-scale structures. More recently, Eigler has investigated single atom spin excitation phenomena.

Nadrian Seeman is recognized with the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience, for inventing DNA nanotechnology, for pioneering the use of DNA as a non-biological programmable material for a countless number of devices that self-assemble, walk, compute, and catalyze.

Nadrian C. Seeman conceived the idea of using DNA as a building material for nanoscale engineering, rather than as the genetic material. His creations range from DNA cubes, to tubes, rings, tiles, and crystals, and promise breakthroughs in future applications in fields ranging from electronics to biology.

DNA is built up from sequences of four bases (A,G,T,C) along each single strand. Two complementary strands of DNA base pair to form the famous double helix. Seeman designed specific short strands of DNA containing precise sequences of base pairs that will spontaneously pair up in such a way as to form complex designed structures. A hallmark of this method of patterning matter is that, once the sequences are designed and mixed together, they “self-assemble” into the desired three-dimensional pattern.

In 1980, Seeman started the field of DNA nanotechnology with the idea of using the structural information in DNA to organize matter on the nanometer scale in three dimensions. To achieve this goal, he worked out the theory of assigning sequences to DNA strands so that they would self-assemble into target branched species. Seeman spent years developing an understanding of the rules for DNA strand design, so that no structure other than the desired one would form. Using single-stranded cohesion, he guided these branched DNA molecules into stick polyhedra, such as a cube and a truncated octahedron. Topological targets, such as deliberate DNA knots and Borromean rings were likewise readily accessible to the methods he developed. He went on to develop motifs robust enough to be used as the components of both crystalline lattices and of nanomechanical devices. He patterned two-dimensional periodic arrays of DNA. Seeman used robust two dimensional arrays of DNA to dictate the arrangement of metallic nanoparticles into a checkerboard pattern. He designed the first DNA-based nanomechanical device, as well as robust individually-addressable 2- and 3-state nanomechanical devices. He developed ways in which DNA could be used to operate a robot arm, to capture target species, and to translate DNA sequences into polymer assembly instructions. Later, he developed DNA-based clocked and autonomous walkers. Most recently, he produced a programmable DNA-based assembly line.

Prize Lectures 


Donald M. Eigler

Donald M. Eigler got both his bachelor’s degree and PhD from the University of California San Diego, while enjoying surfing in his spare time. He completed his post-doctoral work at AT&T Bell Laboratories before joining IBM at the company’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California in 1986. He is described as a patient, methodical scientist who is happy getting his hands dirty, building his own equipment and components, and restoring cars as a hobby. It took him 18 months to build the low temperature, ultra high vacuum scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) that he used to claim his place in history as the first person ever to move and control a single atom. The enthusiasm with which he approached this work is recorded in his lab notebooks. After refining his method so that he could lift atoms off a surface rather than dragging them with the STM probe tip, he wrote in large bold letters, “I’m really having fun!!”  Continue


Nadrian Seeman

"My father was born in Brooklyn, and despite a college degree, he earned his living as a traveling salesman during the Depression. My mother was born in Pittsburgh, graduated college, and taught elementary school there. She met and married my father in Pittsburgh in 1938; along with my maternal grandmother, my parents moved from Pittsburgh to Chicago in 1942. I was born in Chicago at the end of 1945 as the only child in their middle-class Jewish family. My father sold fur garments in Chicago (from 1953 in his own store), but my mother did not return to teaching until my grandmother died in 1963. In 1951, we moved to the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, where we remained until I went to college in 1962. I was a quiet child who preferred reading over sports, a characteristic that has persisted. Sputnik was launched in October, 1957; a year later, I became a 'Sputnik Kid' who was brought daily to the high school in the early morning, where I took a special algebra class, before spending the rest of the day at my middle school. As a nocturnal person, I didn't do all that well, but I was set on a path of advanced math and science courses from then until the end of high school. A year earlier, my father had begun a campaign to convince me that I wanted to be a physician. The math and science that I liked were not incompatible with my father's goal, so he gave me no flack about them. At about the time I got to high school, I lost whatever faith I might have had, and I've been an atheist ever since."

Explanatory Notes 

The ability to control the basic building blocks of matter on a very small scale is one of the core themes of nanoscience. Being able to put atomic, molecular, and nanoscale species where we want them provides new understanding of quantum properties and allows us to create new structures from scratch with a wide range of potential applications.
In making their award, the Kavli Nanoscience Prize Committee has chosen two scientists whose development of unprecedented ways to control matter on the nanoscale have greatly pushed forward the boundaries of human knowledge and proved highly influential in inspiring hundreds of others to follow in their footsteps.
In 1989, Donald M. Eigler, of IBM’s Almaden Research Center, San Jose, California, U.S., became the first person to move an individual atom in a controlled way.

Eigler’s breakthrough was made possible thanks to the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) by Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer in 1981, a device that made possible the imaging of atoms by measuring changes in the way electrons hop between a sharp probe and a specimen, as the probe shifts position.
He built a low temperature, high vacuum STM so that atoms could be better visualized and studied, and as a result discovered it was possible to slide individual atoms across a surface using the tip of his STM. In a landmark experiment he dragged 35 xenon atoms one at a time across a nickel surface to spell out the name of his employer. He later refined his method so that the atoms could be lifted from the surface and released in a new location.

Eigler went on to create “quantum corrals,” which generated well-defined quantum wave patterns within 48 iron atoms positioned in a circle on a copper surface. In the year 2000, he demonstrated the formation of “quantum mirages” in which the energy and distribution of copper surface electrons around a cobalt atom placed at a focal point of an elliptical quantum corral were detected at the ellipse’s other focal point, despite there being no second atom present.

Later work included the development and operation of new logic circuits made from carbon monoxide molecules. Eigler showed that changing the orientation of one molecule could initiate a cascade of shifts in adjacent molecules. He used this phenomenon to generate the basic logic functions and other features required for computation, thereby creating the first computer circuit in which all components were of nanometer scale. Most recently he developed “single-atom spin-flip spectroscopy,” which made feasible the precise measurement of the amount of energy needed to flip an atom’s magnetic orientation and expanded our knowledge of the fundamental magnetic properties of atoms.

Nadrian C. Seeman, of New York University in the U.S., is the founding father of structural DNA nanotechnology, a field that exploits the structural properties of DNA to use it as a raw material for the next generation of nanoscale circuits, sensors, and biomedical devices. Most people are more familiar with DNA as the molecule that contains the genetic instruction set for living organisms. It is made up of sequences of the four base pairs A, T, C, and G. Two complementary strands of DNA are attracted to each other to form the famous double helix shape. Seeman realized in 1980 that this natural tendency of strands of DNA with matching base pair sequences to spontaneously attach to one another meant that synthesized short sections could be made to self-assemble into predictable forms.

Seeman worked out the rules that govern DNA strand design and assembly so as to be able to create specific new shapes and structures. DNA is normally a linear molecule without branches; however, a DNA molecule that self-assembles to have branches or junctions can be created if, say, the two halves of an individual strand attach to two separate other strands. Seeman used this technique to guide branched DNA molecules into stick polyhedra including cubes and truncated octahedrons. He also created DNA knots and Borromean rings.

He went on to develop structures that were robust enough to be used as scaffolding for both crystalline lattices and nanomechanical devices, and created two dimensional periodic arrays of DNA. Seeman used robust two dimensional arrays of DNA to make metallic nanoparticles assemble into a checkerboard pattern. He designed the first DNA-based nanomechanical device, as well as robust individually-addressable 2- and 3-state nanomechanical devices. He developed ways in which DNA could be used to operate a robot arm, to capture target species, and to translate DNA sequences into polymer assembly instructions. Later he developed DNA-based “walkers” as a step towards creating devices that can move cargo, for example, drugs in molecular machines and in biomedical devices. More recently, he has developed programmable DNA-based assembly line.
Professor Arne Skjeltorp, of the University of Oslo, and chairman of the Kavli Nanoscience Prize Committee, said, “Donald Eigler’s demonstration of the ability to move individual atoms on a surface with atomic precision provided credibility and inspiration to what was at the time the emerging field of nanoscience. It could also be described as the research event that gave birth to nanotechnology.

“Nadrian Seeman’s invention of DNA nanotechnology is unprecedented as a method to control matter on the nanoscale. In many ways, it is still early days for the field; however, one day it promises to turn the basic molecular component of life into a means of producing a wide range of novel devices in fields ranging from electronics to biology.”

Committee Members 

Kavli Prize Committee in Nanoscience:

Professor Paul Alivisatos
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Livermore, California – United States

Professor Mostafa A El-Sayed
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, Georgia – United States

Professor Jianguo Hou
Hefei National Laboratory for the Physical Sciences
Anhui, China

Professor Klaus von Klitzing
Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research
Stuttgart, Germany

Professor Arne Skjeltorp (Chair)
University of Oslo
Oslo, Norway


Donald Eigler

Donald M. Eigler

IBM Almaden Research Center

United States of America

Donald M. Eigler got both his bachelor’s degree and PhD from the University of California San Diego, while enjoying surfing in his spare time. Read Full Bio
Nadrian Seeman

Nadrian C. Seeman

New York University

United States of America

Nadrian C. Seeman gained his PhD at the University of Pittsburgh in 1970. He did his post-doctoral training at Columbia University and MIT before going to work at the State University of New York at Albany, after which he joined the Department of Chemistry at New York University in 1988. Read Full Bio