Well maybe not but remember back in school, when you wondered what exactly an atom look like? You didn’t? Well I did. Looking at bugs under the microscope in biology was exciting for sure, but what I really wanted to see were atoms, at the very least molecules. After all how was I supposed to understand how they work when I cannot see them?
Well it took a long time but it’s finally here. IBM has gone and done it now.
This is the 3D image taken by an IBM scientist. Unimpressive huh?
Now lo and behold!
This look familiar? Impressed now? I was. The above image was taken by what is known as an atomic force microscope.
Like the venerable electron microscope, but more powerful and with an eye for the third dimension, the AFM is able to make the nano world something we humans can appreciate visually. Using a silicon micro scale cantilever coated in carbon dioxide (tiny, tiny needle), lasers, an "ultrahigh vacuum" and temperatures that hovered around 5 Kelvin, the AFM imaged the pentacene in nanometres. It did this while sitting a mere 0.5 nanometres above the surface and its previously invisible bonds for 20 long, unmoving hours. The length of time is noteworthy, said IBM scientist Leo Goss in statement from IBM, because any movement whatsoever would have disrupted the delicate atomic bonds and ruined the image.And that's the real beauty of this image. For the first time ever we can see where each of those carbon and hydrogen atoms line up, and the overall symmetrical shape they create. In 3D.
Kudos to the IBM scientist who sat staring at the specimen for “20 straight hours”. The specimen was a 1.4 nanometre-long pentacene molecule comprised of 22 carbon atoms and 14 hydrogen atoms. Sigh! I can already hear the kids go “Tell me again how you had to imagine atoms and molecules…”