Stefan Hell spent his childhood in a German-speaking town near the Romanian city of Arad, in the Banat region on the border to Hungary. He was born there in 1962 and attended a Germanlanguage school where he took special classes in mathematics and physics. His parents, an engineer and an elementary school teacher, encouraged his talent for science. They also had practical reasons for doing so, says Hell. History and literature were strongly tinged by communist ideology, whereas the sciences retained their independence, and would be useful wherever he went. “There were no communists in our family,” says Hell, “and my parents and grandparents had seen for themselves how quickly political systems and public opinion can change.” Even in the 1970s, it was clear to ethnic minorities in the country: if you have the chance to go, then go.
The chance came for the Hell family in 1978, and they moved to Ludwigshafen. The parents found work there, and their gifted son had no difficulty finding his way in the new environment. He was top of the class not just in math and physics, but in German, too. Linguistics and etymology became a kind of hobby that he still enjoys. “Once again, I wanted to discover the connection between words derived from various Germanic languages, and how phonetic changes developed.”
Recognizing connections was also integral to his study of physics: “To be honest, I have always been a little scornful of people who learn things by heart,” Hell admits. He attended the university in Heidelberg, where he also earned his doctorate. At the time, Stefan Hell attempted to interest his dissertation advisor in his quest to investigate the resolution of light microscopes, but optics was too far removed for a university chair specializing in low-temperature physics.
With no one of influence to intercede for him, he took matters into his own hands. He spent a few months in quiet seclusion until he had calculated and worked out the basics of the 4Pi microscope to the point where he was able to apply for a patent. Using the 10,000 deutschmarks that his grandparents had given him as seed capital after his dissertation, he duly did so. “I thought it might be of some commercial relevance,” he says. “Besides, everyone could then see who originated the idea. That was important because I had no publications or anything else to convince people to give me a chance.”