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Most Detailed Photos of an Atom Yet 229

BuzzSkyline writes "Ukrainian researchers have managed to take pictures of atoms that reveal structure of the electron clouds surrounding carbon nuclei in unprecedented detail. Although the images offer no surprises (they look much like the sketches of electron orbitals included in high school science texts), this is the first time that anyone has directly imaged atoms at this level, rather than inferring the structure of the orbitals from indirect measurements such as electron or X-ray interferometry."
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Most Detailed Photos of an Atom Yet

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  • by PatrickThomson ( 712694 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @05:15AM (#29423733)

    This is amazing. We'd theorised orbitals to exist, and they worked very well. We could calculate the shapes of molecules and make detailed predictions that came true to 10 decimal places. Quantum mechanics as applied to electrons in atoms is the most successful and the most rigorously tested theory ever developed.

    And yet, to finally see a real orbital, not a simulation. Looks like a 1s and a 2p, right there for the looking!

  • by Maddog Batty ( 112434 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @05:22AM (#29423771) Homepage

    "Leo Gross and his colleagues at IBM in Zurich, Switzerland, modified the AFM technique to make the most detailed image yet of pentacene, an organic molecule consisting of five benzene rings"

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17699-microscopes-zoom-in-on-molecules-at-last.html [newscientist.com]


  • by romit_icarus ( 613431 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @05:28AM (#29423793) Journal
    The ability to directly measure electron density is quite an old technique. STMs and AFMs have been doing this since the very beginning.. I agree with the researcher's quote in the article that it's good to develop a complementary technique(FEEM) abd at best that's its contribution. I'd be happy to hear what else it contributes. though I don't quite agree with his or the editors spelling! ;) "it's always good to have complimentary approaches,"
  • Magnification (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Butterspoon ( 892614 ) <Butterspoon+slas ... om minus painter> on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @05:54AM (#29423969)
    On my monitor, the unzoomed images are about 3cm across. This corresponds to a magnification factor of around 100 million! Awesome!
  • by L4t3r4lu5 ( 1216702 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @06:02AM (#29424005)
    Your article is much more impressive, IMHO. All I see in the original story is three blue blobs. You could have told me it was false-colour cellular mitosis, and I'd have believed you. I understand that the detail in the story is much higher (imaging one atom instead of a whole molecule) but seeing hexagonal Benzene rings with my own eyes just excites me more.
  • by L4t3r4lu5 ( 1216702 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @06:14AM (#29424035)
    Speaking as a chemist, could you explain what exactly this means? Up until this very moment I have been under the misguided notion that the nucleus of an atom was orbited by electrons within groups called "shells", and these worked very similarly to satellites around a planet. I've looked up and read (for around 5 minutes, so give me a little time to properly read up on it) that this is not the case, and that the "shells" model given to 16 year olds is (understandably) over-simplified.

    So, could you in any way explain how we get from "think of it as a planet with many moons" to this [wikipedia.org] or more importantly, what gives orbitals this shape?

    Maybe I'm opening Pandora's Box here, but I'm intruiged.
  • by anarchyboy ( 720565 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @06:35AM (#29424125)
    Depends what you mean by real, certainly splitting your many electron wave function into orbitals works well and allows an accurate approximation of the system as a whole. The orbitals do form a basis of functions for the system (with some acceptable approximations) so while your quantum state is the whole thing you can think of it as being built of oribitals. This is true in a mathematical sense its an expansion of the quantum function as a set of orbital functions. This is as valid as any other expansion like a taylor or powerseries expansion. So orbitals are real enough in that sense. You can then calculate observables for the individual electrons since your operators will act only on the single electron and your oribtals are normalised the rest of the electrons essentialy go away and you can calculate things like the average radial ditance etc and build up pictures of what that electron "looks like". Since the orbital functions are calculated (numerically) as a multi electron system even though the end product allows you to look at individual electrons as orbitals the overall wave function (all the orbitals combined) is still a very accurate picture of the system

    In fact the experimental evidence showing a physical picture of these orbitals just goes to show that this is in fact a very sensible and useful way of picturing your atom.
  • by rlseaman ( 1420667 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @09:53AM (#29425667)

    Orbitals are not real ! They are mathematical constructs and they are not observables. People think that just because you can calculate something it is real, that is not the case.

    That a derived quantity is "just" a calculated approximate model of some part of the universe doesn't mean it isn't real. Forget about orbitals and quantum mechanics, consider planetary orbits and classical mechanics. There is no such thing as a closed elliptical orbit as depicted in the textbooks. All orbits are unclosed.

    Physics IS building models. Models are real even if they are incomplete:

    http://www.revell.com/catalog/products/buzz_aldrin_rocket_hero.html [revell.com]

    It may not be Buzz, but it shares the quality of physical existence with him. (And Buzz is himself not the man he was on the Moon.) The absurdity of Moon-landing deniers lies in the fact that each and every one of us spends our entire life embedded in outer space. Where else would be be? The evolving Earth is far more special a place than just another desiccated Moon.

  • by emjay88 ( 1178161 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @10:01AM (#29425787)
    Yep and if you do an even more elaborate experiment, where you put detectors at each slit, but then wire the detectors up to the same output (ie, the electron is detected, but you don't know which one detected it), the wave function doesn't collapse until it hits the screen!

Help! I'm trapped in a PDP 11/70!