Frits Zernike Biography


Birthday: July 16, 1888 (Cancer)

Born In: Amsterdam, Netherlands

Fritz Zernike, also known as Fredrik Zernike, was a Dutch mathematician and physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the phase-contrast microscope. He discovered the phenomenon of phase-contrast in 1930 during his investigations about some optical flaws that occurred in diffraction gratings of astronomical telescopes due to imperfections in the spacing of engraved lines. His design of the phase-contrast microscope was based on this phenomenon in which finely tuned rays of light could be separated as they passed through transparent materials. When using this microscope, the light was focused at an angle to enhance the structure of the cells in a tissue without staining or killing them as was required in earlier microscopes. Though this microscope was far superior to other microscopes of the time, not many gave the invention any importance. It came to the notice of Germans only during the Second World War and they seized the design and made duplicates of the microscope. He also devised the ‘Ornstein-Zernike Equation’ in collaboration with Leonard Salomon Ornstein which became the basis for the theory of integral equations related to the equilibrium of fluids. He also devoted a number of years in studying the correlation coefficients and order-disorder theory related to the molecules of various liquids.
Quick Facts

Died At Age: 77


Spouse/Ex-: Lena Korberg-Baanders, Theodora ‘Dora’ Wilhelmina van Bommel van Vloten

father: Carl Frederick August Zernike

mother: Antje Diepernik

siblings: Anna, Elisabeth, Johannes, Lize, Nelly

children: Frits, N. N. Zernike

Physicists Dutch Men

Died on: March 10, 1966

place of death: Amersfoort, Netherlands

City: Amsterdam, Netherlands

More Facts

education: University of Amsterdam

awards: Rumford Medal (1952)
Nobel Prize for Physics (1953)
Fellow of the Royal Society

Childhood & Early Life
Frits Zernike was born in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on July 16, 1888. His father, Carl Frederick August Zernike was the headmaster of an elementary school while his mother, Antje Diepernik was a mathematics teacher.
He was one of the six children in the family. He had four younger sisters named Anna, Lize, Elisabeth and Nelly and a younger brother named Johannes.
He had a passion for physics that he had inherited from his father and possessed items such a test tubes, crucibles and pots that were required for carrying out experiments during his schooldays. At school Frits excelled in science subjects but neglected subjects such as history and languages.
He had set up a mini observatory at his home from where he used to take photographs of comets. He also got involved in photographic experiments and used to make synthetic ether for his experiments. Sometimes he helped his parents in solving complicated mathematical problems as well.
After graduating from high school he joined the ‘University of Amsterdam’ in 1905 and studied chemistry as a major subject and physics and mathematics as minor subjects.
As a proof of his interest in mathematics, he won a gold medal from the ‘University of Groningen’ for an essay on probability in 1908.
He also won a gold medal from the ‘Dutch Society of Sciences’ at Haarlem for his work on critical opalescence in gases in 1912. Instead of taking the gold medal he requested to be given the prize money as he had already received a gold medal earlier.
He obtained a B.Sc. degree in chemistry from the ‘Groningen University’ in 1912.
In 1913 he joined the ‘Groningen University’ as an assistant to Jacobus Cornelius Kapteyn who was the head of the astronomical laboratory of the university.
He worked with Leonard Salomon Ornstein in devising the ‘Ornstein-Zernike Equation’ in 1914.
He did his PhD from the ‘University of Amsterdam’ in 1915.
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Frits Zernike joined the ‘Groningen University’ as a lecturer of ‘Mathematical Physics’ and taught there from 1915 to 1920.
He became a professor of ‘Theoretical Physics’ at the ‘Groningen University’ in 1920.
From 1930 he started studying optics more extensively. He developed the phase-contrast theory during this time and wrote on imaging errors produced by concave gratings.
He described his findings to the ‘Physical and Medical Congress’ held at Wageningen in 1933.
Zerniker’s next contribution to the field of optics was the ‘orthogonal circle polynomials’ which solved a long-standing problem related to the ‘optimum balancing’ of different kinds of aberrations that are produced in an optical instrument. These ‘circle polynomials’ started being used in image analysis and optical metrology and design from the 1960s.
He was able to develop the phase-contrast microscope in 1938 but its importance was not apparent to anybody including companies like Zeiss. Only when the Germans were looking for various inventions during the Second World War that could help the war effort, they came across this microscope and made duplicates of it for their own experiments.
In 1938 he proposed a simpler version of a theorem suggested by Van Cittert in 1934 related to the coherence theory of coherent light sources which is known as the ‘Cittert-Zernike Theorem’.
In 1941 the departments of Mathematical and Technical Physics and Theoretical Mechanics was added to his chair.
He retired as Professor of ‘Theoretical Physics’ at the ‘Groningen University’ in 1958.
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Awards & Achievements
Frits Zernike was made a member of the ‘Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences’ in 1946.
He received the ‘Rumford Medal’ from the ‘Royal Society of London’ in 1952.
He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1953.
He received an honorary doctorate in Medicine from the ‘University of Amsterdam’.
He was made a ‘Foreign Member’ of the ‘Optical Society of America’ and a member of the ‘Royal Microscopical Society’.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Theodora ‘Dora’ Wilhelmina van Bommel van Vloten, a divorced teacher, on January 28, 1930 and had a son named Frits from this marriage. He also adopted Dora’s daughter N. N. Zernike.
He married Lena Korberg-Baanders, the widow of Samuel ‘Sam’ Kopenberg, on February 12, 1954, after the death of Dora on February 16, 1945.
He fell ill in 1958 and did not recover from it until his death in 1966.
Frits Zernike died of illness in Amersfoort, Netherlands on March 10, 1966.
The northern complex of the ‘Groningen University’ was named the ‘Zernike Park’ after him.
A Linux distribution called the ‘Oz Enterprise’ was named after Fredrik Zernike and Leonard Salomon Ornstein.
A crater on the Moon with a diameter of 48 kilometers was named ‘Zernike’ after him.
While Germany benefited from the phase-contrast microscope invented by Frits Zernike, he and all other people of the Netherlands suffered from the German occupation of their country.

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