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Profile: Ken Kemner

Ken Kemner has the closest thing there is to X-ray vision. The 1986 graduate and physicist at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago has an extensive knowledge about high-energy X-ray microscopes, and the work he’s performing with them is capturing widespread attention—Science magazine did an article on his examination of strands of Beethoven’s hair; NASA asked him to join its list of scientists working on its Mission to Mars project; and the White House recently honored him with its Presidential Early Career Award for his collective work.

“Most of my projects involve tedious research,” says Kemner, “but they are exciting from a public interest point of view. At Argonne, we use the advanced photon source, the most intense X-ray source in the country. It’s sort of like an X-ray laser and is a trillion times more brilliant than physicians’ X-rays. As far as light intensity and its ability to travel long distances, it’s like using a candle versus a laser pointer.”

In one of his more high-profile projects, Kemner used an X-ray microscope to examine strands of Beethoven’s hair. Long after Beethoven died in 1827, speculation remained over the cause of death and the chronic illnesses that plagued him during life: bad digestion, severe abdominal pain, depression and irritability. Locks of his hair were given to a young prodigy as a keepsake, then passed on through the generations. The hair ended up on the auction block at Sotheby’s, and two Beethoven enthusiasts purchased the strands in 1994. They hired a hair analysis expert, who hired Kemner. “We found a concentration of lead that was about 100 times higher than it is in most people today,” says Kemner. The average American has about .6 parts per million of lead in his hair. Beethoven had 60 parts per million, which explains the cause of his illnesses and death.

Though it doesn’t sound as glamorous, Kemner’s current project is much more far-reaching. He’s examining the interaction of bacteria with rocks in the hopes of cleaning up or stopping the spread of environmental contamination. “In today’s world, we call cleanup ‘muck, suck and truck,’ ” says Kemner. “We go to the muck, suck it up and truck it off to someone else’s back yard.”

Kemner’s team is trying to create an X-ray microscope that will see the distributions of metals in bacteria. “We’re talking about bacteria where a single microbe is 1/100th the size of a human hair,” he says. “But they can transport contaminant metals. The Department of Energy wants us to figure out how to stop them.”

If the task sounds daunting, it’s because it is. One cleanup site is the size of Rhode Island.

NASA hopes that Kemner’s X-ray microscopes can take pictures of bacteria inside of rocks. One of the places scientists would like to look for signs of life is on Mars. “While the work we do isn’t always front-page material, I’d like to think it’s extremely important and helpful to people,” he says. “Everybody cares about how clean their drinking water is and the soil in their backyard.”

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