Meet our Editors: Peter W. Hawkes, John C.H. Spence

Every few years we can see a little smaller ….

Handbook of Microscopy © SpringerIn this interview, Peter W. Hawkes - retired Director of Research in CEMES-CNRS Toulouse, France - and John C.H. Spence - Director of the BioXFEL consortium of the NSF, USA – discuss the most dramatic and promising past, present and future advances in the field of microscopy. Both have been working in the field of microscopy for decades, having witnessed and actively shaped the tremendous developments of the various methods, techniques, and applications. More than a decade after the publication of their acclaimed “Science of Microscopy”, they have edited the “Springer Handbook of Microscopy”, a book that comprehensively covers the fundamentals, instrumentation, and applications of modern microscopy techniques, with contributions from a virtual who’s who of microscopy. 

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The use of microscopes to view objects that cannot be seen with the naked eye dates back to the 17th century. Why does microscopy continue to be an important technical field?
Peter Hawkes (PH): Every few years we can see a little smaller, and new applications become possible.
John Spence (JS): Now we can see things as small as individual atoms and how they are arranged, which controls everything from the properties of materials to the action of new drugs.

What, in your opinion, is the most important discovery or development that has occurred through the application of microscopy?
JS: In the semiconductor industry, the devices have become so small that only by using an electron microscope can they see them and ensure that their interfaces are sharp.
PH: Although I am not a life scientist, I think that the exploration of the interior of the cell was probably one of the most far-reaching adventures.

Which area of microscopy will play a major role in future science and why?
PH: No doubt, scanning transmission electron microscopy! It is marvelous to be able to associate an entire image with every pixel of the specimen. The many possibilities of this have not yet been explored.
JS: I agree with Peter. The scanning transmission electron microscope is completely unrivaled in its ability to obtain complete electronic spectra from regions within a solid as small as one atom.

If you were to fast forward 50 years how would microscopy techniques differ from those used today?
JS: I am certain that the use of machine learning will transform image interpretation, and high-speed imaging will show us how atoms move around.
PH: If I had answered this question 50 years ago, I would have said “aberration correction” and I would have been right. But as for the next 50 years …. I have no idea. No doubt, very low energy microscopy and very fast microscopy will be mature subjects by then.

Many microscopy books are already available. Why publish a handbook on the topic and who will benefit most from the “Springer Handbook of Microscopy”?
PH: The book will be very useful to readers who contemplate adding new types of microscope to their armory. We aimed to cover a wide range of subjects and these will appeal to scientists in different disciplines: life scientists, physicists, materials scientists and those fascinated by microscopy instrumentation. 
JS: We specifically chose people who write well and can see the broader context of their work; people who are good teachers. Researchers in industry, universities and governmental laboratories, graduate students and those teaching them in universities need to find everything in one place, so they can compare up-to-date methods but also have the fundamentals of each method explained clearly.

Finally, what would you say to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (the first acknowledged microscopist and microbiologist) if he was alive today?
JS: (laughs)…. “You have no idea what you are getting into!”
PH: You are the ancestor of a long and distinguished line of microscopists and opticians: Robert Hooke, Ernst Abbe, the Ruska brothers, Otto Scherzer, and Walter Glaser, Charles Oatley, Albert Crewe, John Rodenburg, Max Haider, and Ondrej Krivanek, Harald Rose, … to name but a few, I could go on and on and there are more to come. Who else could boast of such progeny?!

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Further information:

Springer Handbook of Microscopy