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Professor Says Nobel Winners Stole His Work

(CN) — An Auburn University professor claims two other scientists stole his earlier work on the optical effect of lasers on organic material to win the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Mrinal Thakur sued William Moerner, Eric Betzig, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Stanford University in the Montgomery, Alabama Federal Court on October 7.

Thakur is the director of the Photonic Materials Research Laboratory at Auburn University, and specializes in electronic and nonlinear optical properties of novel organic materials and molecular crystals.

He is also "a co-inventor of electrically conductive polymers and has many publications and patents on nonconjugated conductive polymers," the complaint says.

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Eric Betzig, William Moerner and Stefan Hell (the latter not a party in the lawsuit) for their development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy in lay terms, a way of looking at very tiny objects with a high-powered microscope at far greater resolutions that were available in the past.

Betzig works for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at its Janelia Research Campus, while Moerner is with Stanford University.

According to a news release for the 2014 Nobel award, Betzig, Moerner and Hell "ingeniously circumvented" an inherent limitation in optical microscopy that scientists would never obtain a better resolution than half the wavelength of light. They achieved a resolution that goes beyond standard limits, known as "Abbe's limit," which is named for German Physicist Ernst Abbe.

Betzig and Moerner, working separately from Hell, were recognized for their work in single-molecule microscopy, which relies on the ability to turn the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off.

In his complaint, Thakur says that one of the main approaches used in Betzig and Moerner's Nobel-winning microscopy is based on third order, or nonlinear, optical effects in organic materials. He says he was years ahead of Betzig and Moerner in this area.

"The earliest detailed third order optical studies on organic crystals were initiated by Professor Mrinal Thakur and colleagues back in 1985 - more than ten years earlier than the first report of a successful demonstration of super-resolved microscopy by the 2014 Nobel recipients," the complaint says.

Thakur says that a key equation (referred to as equation 3) shows that detectable radiation can go beyond Abbe's limit, which the defendants provide in their 2014 Nobel research and which is on the Nobel Foundation website.

While Thakur previously published the derivation of equation 3 involving stimulated emission depletion, Betzig and Moerner never provided a derivation of this equation in their published articles, he says.

He adds that equation 3 provides the only "systematic and reliable procedure" to achieve super-resolution by increasing laser light intensity at selected wavelengths.

"Professor Thakur and colleagues published and presented hundreds of articles on experiments and theory of nonlinear optical properties of organic crystals and films, in highly reputed journals and conferences beginning on around 1985. Thus, the nonlinear optical coefficients, excited-state lifetimes and the detailed saturation dynamics and their quantitative interpretations have all been established prior to the works on super-resolved fluorescence microscopy," the complaint says. "This microscopy would not be possible to demonstrate without the in-depth knowledgebase established by Professor Thakur and colleagues."

It charges: "The defendants wrongfully and illegally plagiarized, misappropriated, stole and otherwise utilized plaintiff's work product to obtain the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of super-resolution fluorescence microscopy."

Thakur seeks damages for fraud, suppression, negligence, wantonness, unjust enrichment and conversion.

Stanford general counsel Debra Zumwalt told Courthouse News the university has not been served yet, but that it will vigorously defend the lawsuit. She called Thakur's lawsuit "completely baseless" and noted that he previously made claims relating to an earlier award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Thakur is represented by Thomas Tankersley and Clinton Carter of Montgomery, Alabama.

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