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Frits Zernike

Frits Zernike
Frits Zernike (1888–1966)
Born 16 July 1888
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Died 10 March 1966(1966-03-10) (aged 77)
Amersfoort, Netherlands
Nationality Netherlands
Fields Physics
Institutions Groningen University
Alma mater University of Amsterdam
Doctoral students Christoffel Bouwkamp
Herman de Boer
Bernard Nijboer
Known for Ornstein-Zernike equation
Zernike polynomials
Phase contrast microscopy
Influences Jacobus Cornelius Kapteyn
Notable awards Rumford Medal (1952)
Nobel Prize for Physics (1953)
Fellow of the Royal Society[1]

Frits Zernike (; 16 July 1888 – 10 March 1966) was a Dutch physicist and winner of the Nobel prize for physics in 1953 for his invention of the phase contrast microscope, an instrument that permits the study of internal cell structure without the need to stain and thus kill the cells.[1]


  • Biography 1
  • Research in physical optics 2
  • Honours and awards 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Zernike was born in Amsterdam, Netherlands to Carl Frederick August Zernike and Antje Dieperink. Both parents were teachers of mathematics, and he especially shared his father's passion for physics. He studied chemistry (his major), mathematics and physics at the University of Amsterdam. In 1912 he was awarded a prize for his work on opalescence in gases. In 1913 he became assistant to Jacobus Cornelius Kapteyn at the astronomical laboratory of Groningen University. In 1914, he was responsible jointly with Leonard Salomon Ornstein for the derivation of the Ornstein-Zernike equation in critical-point theory. In 1915, he obtained a position in theoretical physics at the same university and in 1920 he was promoted to full professor of theoretical physics.

Research in physical optics

In 1930, Zernike was conducting research into spectral lines and discovered that the so-called ghost lines that occur to the left and right of each primary line in spectra created by means of a diffraction grating, have their phase shifted from that of the primary line by 90 degrees. It was at a Physical and Medical Congress in Wageningen in 1933 that Zernike first described his phase contrast technique in microscopy. He extended his method to test the figure of concave mirrors. His discovery lay at the base of the first phase contrast microscope, built during World War II.

Another contribution in the field of optics is related to the efficient description of the imaging defects or aberrations of optical imaging systems like microscopes and telescopes. The representation of aberrations was originally based on the theory developed by Ludwig Seidel in the middle of the nineteenth century. Seidel's representation was based on power series expansions and did not allow a clear separation between various types and orders of aberrations. Zernike's orthogonal circle polynomials provided a solution to the long-standing problem of the optimum 'balancing' of the various aberrations of an optical instrument. Since the 1960s, Zernike's circle polynomials are widely used in optical design, optical metrology and image analysis.

Zernike's work helped awaken interest in coherence theory, the study of partially coherent light sources. In 1938 he published a simpler derivation of Van Cittert's 1934 theorem on the coherence of radiation from distant sources, now known as the Van Cittert-Zernike theorem.[2][3] He died in the hospital at Amersfoort, Netherlands in 1966 after suffering illness the last years of his life.[4]

Honours and awards

In 1946 Zernike became member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.[5] Zernike was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS).[1] The university complex to the north of the city of Groningen is named after him (Zernike park), as is the crater Zernike on the Moon. Zernike's great-nephew Gerardus 't Hooft won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1999.[6]

The Oz Enterprise, a Linux distribution, was named after Leonard Salomon Ornstein and Frederik Zernike.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Tolansky, S. (1967). "Frits Zernike 1888-1966".  
  2. ^ Van Cittert, P. H. (1934). "Die Wahrscheinliche Schwingungsverteilung in Einer von Einer Lichtquelle Direkt Oder Mittels Einer Linse Beleuchteten Ebene". Physica 1: 201–210.  
  3. ^ Zernike, F. (1938). "The concept of degree of coherence and its application to optical problems". Physica 5 (8): 785–795.  
  4. ^  
  5. ^ "Frederik (Frits) Zernike (1888 - 1966)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 17 July 2015. 
  6. ^ Robert Goldwyn. "Gerardus 't Hooft Science Video Interview". 

External links

  • Frits Zernike Photo
  • Frits Zernike Biography
  • "How I discovered phase contrast" Nobel Prize speech
  • Extended Nijboer-Zernike theory
  • Museum Boerhaave Negen Nederlandse Nobelprijswinnaars
  • H. Brinkman, Zernike, Frits (1888–1966), in Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland.
  • Prominente Groningse hoogleraren Frits Zernike (1888–1966)
  • Frits Zernike (1888–1966) biography at the National library of the Netherlands.
  • The Ornstein-Zernike equation and integral equations
  • Multilevel wavelet solver for the Ornstein-Zernike equation Abstract
  • Analytical solution of the Ornstein-Zernike equation for a multicomponent fluid
  • The Ornstein-Zernike equation in the canonical ensemble
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