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World's Most Powerful Optical Microscope 163

gamricstone writes "Scientists have produced the world's most powerful optical microscope, which could help understand the causes of many viruses and diseases. Previously, the standard optical microscope could only see items around one micrometre — 0.001 millimetres — clearly. But now, by combining an optical microscope with a transparent microsphere, dubbed the 'microsphere nanoscope,' the Manchester researchers can see 20 times smaller — 50 nanometres ((5 x 10-8m) — under normal lights. This is beyond the theoretical limit of optical microscopy. 'Seeing inside a cell directly without [it] dying and seeing living viruses directly could revolutionize the way cells are studied and allow us to examine closely viruses and biomedicine for the first time.'"
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World's Most Powerful Optical Microscope

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  • Idiot (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 02, 2011 @02:15PM (#35359386)

    Maybe you could, oh I don't know, read the article? Just first posting some dumb question that can easily be answered by taking a second to READ does not make you seem insightful. Of course, it wouldn't take a genius to figure it out without even reading. This new technique is beyond the theoretical limits of standard optical microscopy because it doesn't freaking USE standard optical microscopy. Uh dur.

    The new nano-imaging system is based on capturing optical, near-field virtual images, which are free from optical diffraction, and amplifying them using a microsphere, a tiny spherical particle which is further relayed and amplified by a standard optical microscope.

    Professor Li, who initiated and led the research in collaboration with academics at the National University and Data Storage Institute of Singapore, believes their research could prove to be an important development.

    He said: "This is a world record in terms of how small an optical microscope can go by direct imaging under a light source covering the whole range of optical spectrum.

    "Not only have we been able to see items of 50 nanometres, we believe that is just the start and we will be able to see far smaller items.

    "Theoretically, there is no limit on how small an object we will be able to see.

    However, even with no limits, these scientists would be hard pressed to image your brain.

  • by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Wednesday March 02, 2011 @02:35PM (#35359630)

    This is beyond the theoretical limit of optical microscopy." So either the scientists are lying, or the theory is wrong. Which is it? Pons? Fleischmann? Anyone?

    The dumbed down version (the only one I understand): light has a "size" of about 200 nanometers, and you wouldn't expect to see detail smaller than that using light. Recently though, people have found a way around that.

    This actually isn't the first microscope to break that barrier. There's OMX [] for one.

  • Re:Glass spheres (Score:4, Informative)

    by Script Cat ( 832717 ) on Wednesday March 02, 2011 @02:37PM (#35359660)

    Here's the original non-lame paper []

    and a bbc article for good measure: []

  • Re:20 times smaller (Score:4, Informative)

    by N0Man74 ( 1620447 ) on Wednesday March 02, 2011 @02:56PM (#35359886)

    Lately, I've been hearing complaints about the usage of "times less" pop up quite a few times around here.

    First of all, it's a common idiom. Idioms aren't always used in a way that some might find to be mathematically consistant. A bird in the hand is not the mathematical equivalent of two in the bush.

    Also, this idiom is actually mathematically consistent in that it clearly suggests a multiplicative inverse (or reciprocal).

    Finally, this is a very old usage. It has been documented to have existed for three centuries years. This doesn't mean that the journalist is stupid, unless you also would consider a writer such as Jonathan Swift to be stupid.

  • by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Wednesday March 02, 2011 @02:58PM (#35359898)

    So is the theory wrong, is the article wrong (yes, I did RTFA), or did they find some clever workaround?

    This is one of several clever workarounds []. The article lacks details, I'm guessing it's because the concept is pretty complex. I only half understand the structured illumination method mentioned in that wiki article and I think that's probably a simpler concept.

  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Wednesday March 02, 2011 @03:00PM (#35359918)

    "This is beyond the theoretical limit of optical microscopy."

    So either the scientists are lying, or the theory is wrong. Which is it? Pons? Fleischmann? Anyone?

    Its journalist BS. Doesn't mean a hell of a lot. When does journalist BS mean anything?

    Way back in 1874 Abbe figured out the theoretical limit of microscope resolution. Far field resolution with positive refractive index materials, that is. Thats all we had back then. Kind of like how the romans probably could have made silicon diodes, if only they had purer silicon... []

    Abbe figured the resolution only depends on the wavelength of the light being viewed and the NA of the lense (numerical aperture) []

    Its kind of like those theoretical thermodynamic limits. Not that its easy to even come close, but conventional physics says this is as far as you could dream of going...

    For decades (centuries, really) they fooled with stranger and shorter light wavelengths, and continually optimized the material science of their lenses to get better NAs. Unfortunately they optimized themselves into quite a tight little local minimum. Recently they came up with some pretty far out material science. Also some pretty weird electromagnetics, trying to use nearfield instead of a farfield system.

    They "broke all the rules", in journalist speak, much like a music band or a car body designer breaks all the rules, but that doesn't mean they can levitate or glow in the dark or something, it just means they tried something pretty far out. Unlike the car designers and musicians, the result of this foolishness is actually pretty cool and useful.

    You could accurately compare near and far field work like conventional vs quantum mechanics in that a lot of what you "expect" from one, does not work in the other. [] []

    Pretty much useless theoretical foolishness for a traditional microscope, right? Well it turns out by some trickery you can apply that kind of stuff after all. [] []

    This article is not about a totally new area of science or something, just one particularly well done demonstration / experiment. Its some cool applied engineering, not new theoretical science. And I believe my little /. post is probably better and more informative than any mainstream media story will be about this topic.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 02, 2011 @03:11PM (#35360030)

    They're already smaller than the wavelength of light used by the microscope. Resolution at 50nm, Wavelength is 200nm.

  • theoretical limit (Score:4, Informative)

    by u19925 ( 613350 ) on Wednesday March 02, 2011 @03:30PM (#35360306)
    The summary says, "This is beyond the theoretical limit of optical microscopy". Which theoretical limit? The only theoretical limit that I know is diffraction limit (angular resolution is about wavelength/lens_diameter or lambda/D). But that only applies for objects far off (distance much larger than D^2/lambda. so it is quite accurate for telescopes). There is no direct theoretical limit for microscopes. The semiconductor manufacturing uses near field photolithography for ages where they routinely create features smaller than the diffraction limit.
  • by cr42yr1ch ( 1764012 ) on Wednesday March 02, 2011 @03:55PM (#35360660)
    It is a matter of simplicity of optics, damage to the sample and contrast. Visible light optics are very advanced (i.e. glass lenses), but it starts to get difficult as you head towards shorter wavelenths. X rays, especially high energy (short wavelength) ones, are extremely hard to focus. Short wavelengths of light also damage biological samples (imagine UV and sunburn). A key requirement for generating an image is high contrast, use of very short wavelength light/electrons requires heavy metal staining to get good contrast, not exactly ideal for looking at a living cell.
  • Re:theoretical limit (Score:3, Informative)

    by Americium ( 1343605 ) on Wednesday March 02, 2011 @05:11PM (#35361756)

    Actually it's worse when things are closer. Focusing plane waves must only bend/reflect the light a little, and a simple parabolic mirror will do. But when you aren't in the far distant limit, the light is still expanding outward, like the light from a candle, in all directions. Now you need something MORE angled than a parabolic mirror, you need to bend the light MORE, so the limit is hit even sooner. This is widely studied, and there are plenty of theoretically sound models taking into account your specific lenses.

    Wiki link []

    The semiconductor manufacturing uses near field photolithography for ages where they routinely create features smaller than the diffraction limit.

    What exactly do you mean by this? They often use photomasks, shorter wavelengths, or narrow slits at very close range, so the light has no time to spread out. The LIMIT is what you can focus, so perhaps you can't focus your laser to 10nm, but you can just shoot lots of light through a 10nm gap, and it'll burn a 10nm, hole. Now if they were using a laser 1m away, no photomasks, and actually focused it (completely focused) to 10nm, then they would have broke the limit.

When a fellow says, "It ain't the money but the principle of the thing," it's the money. -- Kim Hubbard