Documenting the Coming Singularity

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Atoms up close and personal

Inside Science - 9/14/09 (by Mike Lucibella & Lauren Schenkman)

The first detailed images of atoms show various arrangements of the clouds of electrons surrounding a carbon atom. A and B depict two different arrangements of the electron clouds. Credit: Kharkov Institute for Physics and Technology.

Though scientists have been studying them for years, atoms are only now ready for their first close-up portrait.

For the first time, physicists have photographed the structure of an atom down to its electrons.

The pictures, soon to be published in the journal Physical Review B, show the detailed images of a single carbon atom's electron cloud, taken by Ukrainian researchers at the Kharkov Institute for Physics and Technology in Kharkov, Ukraine.

This is the first time scientists have been able to see an atom's internal structure directly. Since the early 1980s, researchers have been able to map out a material's atomic structure in a mathematical sense, using imaging techniques.

Quantum mechanics states that an electron doesn't exist as a single point, but spreads around the nucleus in a cloud known as an orbital. The soft blue spheres and split clouds seen in the images show two arrangements of the electrons in their orbitals in a carbon atom. The structures verify illustrations seen in thousands of chemistry books because they match established quantum mechanical predictions.

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