New Search

Paul K. Hansma

  • Born: April 28, 1946, Salt Lake City, Utah

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0345
Interview Dates: May 2, 2006 and August 7, 2006
Location: Santa Barbara, California
Interviewer: Cyrus Mody
No. of pages: 73
Sponsor: Nanotechnology

  Abstract of Interview

Paul K. Hansma begins the interview by describing his childhood and early interest in building projects. After obtaining his undergraduate degree from New College, Hansma enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley to study condensed matter physics under Gene Rochlin. Upon completing his thesis on externally shunted Josephson Junctions, Hansma accepted a faculty position at the University of California at Santa Barbara and worked on squeezable electron tunneling junctions. It was at that time Hansma heard a lecture by Gerd Binnig on a new technique called scanning tunneling microscopy (STM). Frustrated by the lengthy time requirements to set up each trial, Hansma began to move away from ultra-high vacuum equipment into STMs that would function in air and liquids. Hansma divided the labor between graduate students, technician Barney Drake, and himself and began building STMs, including the first one to achieve atomic resolution in water. Then, a conference at Cancun, Mexico served as a major impetus for information exchange and helped many groups to achieve atomic resolution. Soon after, at the request of colleague, Calvin Quate, Hansma reviewed a paper on atomic force microscopy (AFM). The concept intrigued Hansma and he began to shift his research from STM to AFM. After building many iterations of AFMs, Hansma set up a research agreement with Digital Instruments' founder Virgil Elings to receive prototype instruments in exchange for consultation. Hansma concludes the interview by offering insights on the impact of the UCSB Materials Research Laboratory; thoughts on the nanotechnology community; and his current research on bone diagnostic instruments.


1967 B.A., Physics, New College
1968 M.A., Physics, University of California, Berkeley
1972 Ph.D., Physics, University of California, Berkeley

  Professional Experience

University of California, Santa Barbara

1972 - 1976 Assistant Professor, Physics Department

University of California, Santa Barbara

1976 - 1980 Associate Professor, Physics Department

University of California, Santa Barbara

1980 - Present Professor, Physics Department

University of California, Santa Barbara

1994 - 1997 Co-Chair of Physics Department


1989 - Present Editorial Board Member

Arizona State University

1997 - Present Advisory Board for Interactive Nano-visualization in Science and Engineering Education (INVSEE) program

Review of Scientific Instruments

1999 - Present Editorial Board member


1964 Presidential Scholar (presented by President Johnson)
1967 - 1971 Fellow, National Science Foundation
1975 - 1977 Fellow, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
1983 Professor of the Year, University of California, Santa Barbara
1988 Distinguished Teaching Award, University of California, Santa Barbara
1988 International Advisory Committee, Scanning Tunneling Microscopy
1989 Fellow, American Physical Society
1990 Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
1990 - 1993 Executive Committee, Division of Chemical Physics, American Physical Society
1991 Paul E. Klopsteg Award, American Association of Physics Teachers
1993 Max Planck Research Award
2000 Biological Physics Prize, American Physical Society
2004 Fellow, Institute of Physics

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family History and Early Life Experiences 1

Aspiration to be an athlete during childhood. Injury and shift towards the sciences during high school. Early proficiency in tinkering and building projects.

Undergraduate Education 3

Deciding to major in physics and attending New College. Difficulties with attending a newly-founded college. Learning from mentors and deciding to go to graduate school.

Graduate Education 6

Attending UC Berkeley and studying under Gene Rochlin. The influence of John Clarke and studying superconducting Josephson effect. Being part of the superconductivity community and learning its dynamics. Working with Josephson tunneling junctions.

Early Work at UC Santa Barbara 11

Learning about scanning tunneling microscopes (STM) from Gerd Binnig. Fostering multidisciplinary research and collaborations. Squeezable electron tunneling junction work.

Building STMs 22

Shifting research direction away from ultra high vacuum and into air and liquid. Development of the STM community. Challenges and division of labor in building an STM. Role of graduate students and post-docs. First conference in Cancun, Mexico. Information exchange between pioneering researchers. DNA research using STM.

Working on atomic force microscopes (AFM) 41

Reviewing a paper for Calvin Quate that lead to interest in AFM. Building iterations of instruments. Gathering student feedbacks. Grants and funding sources. Setting up research agreement with Virgil Elings and Digital Instruments to commercialize AFMs. Spreading the use of AFM through post-docs from different disciplines.

Concluding Thoughts 66

Impact of the UCSB Materials Research Laboratory. Thoughts on the nanotechnology community. Shifting research direction towards bone diagnostic instruments.

Notes 68

Index 70

  About the Interviewers

Cyrus Mody

Cyrus Mody is an assistant professor of history at Rice University. Prior to that position he was the manager of the Nanotechnology and Innovation Studies programs in the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and materials engineering from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in science and technology studies from Cornell. He was the 2004–2005 Gordon Cain Fellow at CHF before becoming a program manager. Mody has published widely on the history and sociology of materials science, instrumentation, and nanotechnology.

Hear It Firsthand

The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@

Annual Report

Annual Report
Take a look back at a year of preservation, research, and outreach in CHF’s annual report to donors.

Support CHF

Help us preserve and share the history of chemistry and related sciences. Make a tax-deductible tax-deductible gift online.