Atom Inside Photographed


Talk about taking a tough shot. Physicists have, for the first time, been able to image the quantum workings of electrons in hydrogen atoms, an advance that could open the door to a deeper understanding of the quantum world.

Snapping a picture of the inside of an atom – the electrons, the protons, the neutrons – is no easy task. Quantum mechanics makes it virtually impossible to pin down these subatomic particles.

Instead of having the ability to describe where a particle is, quantum theory provides a description of its whereabouts called a wave function.

Wave functions work like sound waves, except that whereas the mathematical description of a sound wave defines the motion of molecules in air at a particular place, a wave function describes the probability of finding the particle.

Physicists can theoretically predict what a wave function is like, but measuring a wave function is very hard because they are exquisitely fragile.

In another bit of quantum weirdness, most attempts to directly observe wave functions actually destroy them in a process called collapse.

Written By: Nathan Collins
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  1. “their result concerned “extremely fundamental” physics that might be just as valuable for developing quantum intuition in the next generation of physicists.”

    ‘If you think you understand Quantum Intuition… you don’t understand Quantum Intuition’

    with apologies to Richard Feynman

  2. The more physics I learn(as a physics student), the less I understand of popular science articles dealing with physics. Wave functions are like sound waves now? In what sense? They both contain the word “wave”?
    I suppose this technique and the paper is of some value, but a picture like that certainly doesn’t further my understanding in any way.

  3. @ MahouShoujoMaruin

    The similarity lies only in that the two are represented graphically as waves. The analogy can be misleading when trying to conceptualize the phenomenon. Really every anology has its pitfalls when it comes to quantum mechanics.

    Don’t let your frustrations get to you. I have an undergrad in physics and I can remember being mind numbingly frustrated at times, but there are few things in life more gratifying when a concept finally clicks…

  4. In reply to #3 by elmo14:

    @ MahouShoujoMaruin

    The similarity lies only in that the two are represented graphically as waves. The analogy can be misleading when trying to conceptualize the phenomenon. Really every anology has its pitfalls when it comes to quantum mechanics.

    I’m sorry, my post was a bit ambiguous. What you are saying makes my point; why compare it to a sound wave when the only thing in common is the wave-nature? “sound” doesn’t add anything. Just say that a quantum state is described by something called a wave function, which is a type of wave equation, a mathematical equation describing waves. Maye add that the square of the absolute value of the wave function gives the probability density of finding the particle at a certain place in time and space, when measured. Maybe add something about wave-particle duality. But saying that a wave-function is like a sound wave in that they both have something to do with waves is both self-evident and not really helpful.

    This article wasn’t too bad, but many popular science articles are written by journalist who have no clue what they are talking about, and end up being more confusing then enlightening. That was the point I was trying to make.

    As frustrating as physics can be, it doesn’t get quite as frustrating as reading the news most days :/

  5. Like how fundamental physics seems to be made of fuzzy particles. Find this strangely comforting.

  6. The magic of the wave equation is that energy states have corresponding shapes that are various standing wave solutions of the Schrödinger wave equation. It all pops out of less than a line of pure math, this strange set of balloon-like lobes.

    The wave equation is a function of x,y,z that when squared give the probability of finding an electron at that spot, loosely speaking.

    If you take the wave equations of two atoms, they are additive where they intersect, like water waves, hence the interference patterns.

    It is almost as though it were a 3D analog of the standing waves in a violin string, where you can have only an integral number of nodes.

    When I was going to university in the 60’s Dr. Charlotte Froese was computing hydrogen wave functions on the IBM 7044 “mainframe”. I presume we can compute much more complex atoms and molecules today.

    A am absolutely astounded at the photo in this story. I assumed the slipperiness of wave equations would mean they would forever remain mathematical constructs only.

  7. In reply to #7 by Net:

    so, “image” is a verb now?

    Yes. and it has been for some time. Drop into the “Imaging” department in a hospital for example.

  8. Quantum effect wavefunctions are a signature of potential – ie, they appear to be the state which exists in a formative level of matter prior to establishment of the relevant particle outcome within the context of a quantum system, via ‘observation’, as I recall.

    Hard thing to get on a snap.

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