Richard N. Zare


Basic Sciences

2nd edition

The 2009 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Basic Sciences category goes to physicist and chemist Richard N. Zare and physicist Michael E. Fisher, for their independent, fundamental contributions to describing the world at molecular level.


The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics) goes to Richard N. Zare and Michael E. Fisher. “For their independent, fundamental contributions across physics and chemistry. One has unraveled the secrets of nature’s building blocks and the underlying interactions between them by enabling us to view what happens at the molecular scale. The other has developed theoretical approaches that help analyze what happens when a large assembly of such building blocks is brought together.

Richard N. Zare shares the award for his introduction of laser-induced fluorescence and other laser-based techniques in order to address questions ranging from chemical reaction dynamics to ultra-sensitive chemical analysis down to the limit of single cells and single molecules. The development of laser-induced fluorescence goes back to the decade of the 1970s. This ultra-sensitive technique has since found wide use in many areas of chemistry and biology.

It has been used to study quantum-state-selected chemical reactions in the gas phase and to identify transient species in reactions, thus being instrumental in studying atmospheric chemistry, combustion and flames. The technique has also been widely adopted for highly sensitive and selective analysis of chemical and biological samples. It has allowed the counting of individual molecules in a bacterial cell and has contributed to the DNA sequencing of the human genome.

Michael E. Fisher shares the award for his fundamental contributions to statistical mechanics. His work helps to interpret the vast diversity of the behaviors of bulk matter in terms of the characteristics of the component atomic or molecular parts and their interactions. In particular, Fisher has made incisive contributions to the understanding of equilibrium critical phenomena. An example is afforded by the interface between coexisting liquid and gas phases separated by gravity. The interface appears sharp, but it is not so at an atomic scale, as light scattering reveals. In the critical region, the length scale of the density fluctuation diverges, as manifested by critical opalescence. This work culminates in the key ideas of universality and of universality classes which are governed by the nature of the interactions.”