The movie that Prof. Albert Crewe showed at the University of Chicago last week was like an early silent: jerky, no Technicolor, soft focus. It will never win an Oscar; it will only make Crewe famous. The film, starring a couple hundred uranium atoms, marked the first time these tiny bits of matter have ever been photographed in motion.
Physicist Crewe, who has spent the past 12 years working on his project, startled the scientific world in 1970 with the first still picture of a uranium atom. He and his team have developed a scanning electron microscope which magnifies objects 10 million times. (Other microscopes magnify as much but do not provide the clear, contrasting image of Crewe’s device.) He strung together 100 of the still pictures to make an action sequence. “We were surprised to find so much motion,” Crewe reports. Unexpectedly, not all of the activity is random. “To find two atoms, a long distance apart, moving around together—that’s a strange thing,” he says. “Somehow, they’re connected and we don’t know how.”
An immediate benefit of his discovery, says Crewe, is that scientists now can watch the formation of molecules. “How does it begin when there is only one atom? Then number two comes along. It becomes possible to study it just by watching.” Crewe adds that in his film, “You see a group of 10 atoms in a blob and another atom wandering around in space somewhere. Suddenly the one atom goes blob and joins the blob. This is the beginning of the growth of crystals. We would not have spotted this in successive still pictures. Only when you run them in a movie can you see the whole thing.”
Crewe also forecasts potentially important biological and chemical uses, especially in the study of catalysts—the substances which augment chemical reactions in cells. “No one,” says Crewe, “really understands catalytic agents. We now can look at atoms and watch them come together.”
Born in Bradford, Yorkshire, England, Crewe, 49, arrived in Chicago in 1955 on a postdoctoral fellowship. He had earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Liverpool. By 1961 he was director of the Argonne National Laboratory, a major research center near Chicago. He returned to the university in 1967 to become dean of physical sciences.
He and his wife, Doreen, a local school board official, live in a redwood-and-cedar home on a hill in suburban Palos Park. They have four children: Jennifer, 20, a junior at Sarah Lawrence, Sally, 15, Liz, 12, and David, 10. Completing the family are two dogs and a horse named Rowdy, who is kept in a nearby barn. Crewe enjoys working with tools and has designed and built four additions to his house, including an isolated master bedroom wing. “My mother was coming to stay with us,” he says, “and it was a mad panic to have a little place to retreat to.” He also sculpts in wood and his statues are displayed around his home. He plays tennis three times a week and practices archery, although a burglar stole his favorite bow. (Crime is no stranger to the Crewes’ sylvan setting—vandals have cherry-bombed their mailbox so often they now receive letters at a post office box.)
Crewe modestly downplays his latest achievement as a mere technological feat. “We filled in all the gaps and that was it—this is not a eureka thing,” he says. “It is a new scientific tool which someone else is going to use to do something important. It probably won’t be me, because I am more interested in developing a tool to put into people’s hands. I find that as much of a challenge.”