Harald really kept me afloat both personally and professionally during that time. We both worked insanely hard during those years. I would come into work at 4:30 in the morning, and if I saw Harald’s car, I would put my hand on the hood to find out if the engine was still warm. He did exactly the same thing. We were both really competitive, but we played tennis every morning and ate dinner together every night. We were best friends and still are.
Meanwhile, the field had blown up. There were hundreds of people doing near-field by this time, and much of it was crap. People were fooling themselves with images that had sharp-looking but artifactual structures, and they just didn’t want to hear it. I felt like every good result I had provided justification for a hundred lousy papers to follow, and that was a waste of people’s time and taxpayers’ money.
When Kriya was three, and started speaking with a Jersey accent, I knew we had to get out of New Jersey.
I tried to convince Harald to come make this lattice microscope with me. He was interested, but unsure. I also contacted Horst, who had won the Nobel in 1998, and was now at Columbia. He invited me to present the idea to the biology department there in April 2005. Marty Chalfie was one of my hosts during that visit, and he turned to me in the cab on the way to dinner and said, “It sounds like you really believe in this idea. How are you going to get back in the lab?” I said, “I have no idea, but I read in Physics Today that there’s a guy named Gerry Rubin who wants to make a biological Bell Labs,” and we left it at that.
Harald and I built the first PALM microscope in his living room in La Jolla (Figure 6). We were both unemployed, but Harald had some of his equipment from Bell. We pulled that out of storage, and each put in $25,000 to cover everything else we needed. We worked hard, and in September shipped all the parts to rebuild the microscope in the darkroom of Jennifer’s lab at the NIH.
We submitted the work to Science in March, and it was published that August, after a lengthy fight with a reviewer who demanded correlative EM data, and then pushed for rejection even after we supplied it.
I feel like I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had the career I’ve had. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been able to focus 100% on my work – I’ve never written a grant in my life. I doubt I would have been as successful in a more traditional academic career path.
So unfortunate they stopped publishing these biographicals in 2019… I read a few dozen of them over the last couple of years and they’re usually so raw and honest…
What I’d really like to work on is space propulsion, but I don’t know if there’s any opportunity there at my scale. Basically, I’m not a good team guy. I’m too much of an alpha male to be in somebody else’s team, and so I need to find something I can do on a table top.
KW: Do you think your mind works differently to other people’s?
EB: I don’t know about my mind, but my motivations are different. I think my tolerance for bullshit is a lot lower than other people’s. A lot of people get too wrapped up in writing a paper and things that would help their career. I’m old enough now to think that life is too short for bullshit.