The Loh Down On Science

European physicists are seeing electrons in a whole new way!

A.S. Stodolna et al., Phys. Rev. Lett., 2013.

Schematic of the photoionizing microscope. Hydrogen gas (for the electrons) is introduced at (A). An atomic hydrogen beam is formed at (B). Electrons enter the imaging spectrometer at (C). An electric field is applied at (D) to excite, or energize, the electrons. The electrons hit a detector at (E) and a phosphor screen at (F). Phosphor hit by electrons emits photons (packets of energy). Photons are recorded with a CCD camera at (G).

Quantum physics?  It’s time for your close-up!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science

And what’s new in the world of atomic orbitals.

See, in an atom, orbitals are the regions surrounding the nucleus, where electrons live.  Poor physicists are frustrated voyeurs.  They want to look at naked electrons but the quantum nature of these particles—that they can be in multiple places at once—makes them difficult to see.

But Dutch physicists have designed a new kind of quantum microscope, which lets them see more than ever before.  It uses a phenomenon called photo-ionization to peep at the inner workings of hydrogen atoms.

The contraption uses a laser to separate hydrogen electrons from their nuclei and aim them at a waiting detector.  It's kind of like spraying a water-gun from a merry-go-round and watching where the droplets land.

After tens of thousands of detections, the detector has an image of a pattern of electrons.  This accurately shows the structure of that elusive, spooky orbital den where electrons roam.

So what did those voyeuristic physicists see?  Naked electrons in kind of the shape of a cartoon donut. 

 

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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