As someone who enjoys dabbling in photography, albeit as an amateur, I have always been fascinated by microscopic imaging. Whether it is studying viruses attacking other cells or viewing microorganisms living on the earth, humanity takes pride in the ability to see and record some of the smallest interactions in our understandable world. Though this microscopic frontier is very popular in the medical and environmental fields, there is one field that people occasionally overlook – physics. Some of the greatest advancements and understandings of our universe have started from understanding the building blocks of atoms. We live in a world governed by many rules, including some of the more bizarre, such as quantum mechanics.
Quantum mechanics is a field that deals with atomic phenomena at molecular scales. Within this field, I am particularly fascinated by the electron. When I was younger, I was taught that electrons orbit in shells, residing in symmetrical patterns around a nucleus. As I took more advanced classes in high school, I was introduced to the idea of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. This principle states that there is a limit to us knowing how fast a particle is moving and where it is at any given time. The idea that electrons are in orbital shells that offer a picture perfect view of atomic structures is simply wrong. Though the atomic structures and rings around them that hold electrons have a high probability of having electrons within them, a high probability does not equal certainty.
Therefore, it makes sense to question how we will ever truly see an electron with a microscope. If we have such difficulty in locating them and predicting where they are, how can we photograph them? Advances in science in the last five to ten years have brought innovative ways to do just this. Very recently, Aneta Stodolna, of the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics (AMOLF) in the Netherlands, and her colleagues have created an electronic microscope to capture a hydrogen atom.
Stodolna fried the atom with pulsing lasers, which forced the ionized electron to escape from the hydrogen atom along various trajectories. The difference between these trajectories led to an interference pattern, which Stodolna magnified with an electrostatic lens and captured the image below of the electron earlier this year.
Such discoveries in our atomic sphere continue to open a world that has been closed for centuries. Most models of electrons and other atomic particles have been computer-generated based on mathematical calculations. We finally are improving our ability to go beyond computers and see things with our own eyes.
To me, this scientific discovery reinforces the idea that small achievements really do matter. Vincent Van Gogh once said, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” This step forward in understanding our microscopic world by itself may not change the course of history, but as the scientists and innovators in our world continue to make new discoveries, life will embrace new opportunities and wonder.
This idea can be applied to our lives far beyond the atomic level. As students, we should never forget that we are valuable, no matter how large or small our contributions are to our school, community, and the world. Sometimes I feel like we strive for ideals that are just way too large for any one person to satisfy. Dreams are important things, but don’t allow the achievement of a dream to be the only way you define success. Achievement does not have to be a grand ordeal— it can be a simple smile you have given others through your actions.
Join me next time as we continue to explore the weird of our universe. Through the vast monuments erected by mankind to the peculiar discovery of scientific phenomena, there is plenty left to discover around us.
Aditya Rengaswamy is a junior accounting student at CWRU. He enjoys doing various service projects like Kids Against Hunger, engaging and improving CWRU and hanging out with his brothers in ƟX.