Scientists have captured the first ever photo of an electron’s whizzing orbit within a hydrogen atom, thanks to a unique new microscopy technique.
Seeing inside the tiniest bits of matter is a challenge, not just because of the infinitesimal atomic scale: Extremely small things operate in extremely weird ways, a branch of science called quantum physics. And the basic act of observing such diminutive things can affect their very existence, a concept known as the uncertainty principle.
'[It's] a beautiful demonstration of the intricacies of quantum mechanics.'
- Aneta Stodolna, of the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics
To get around that mind-warping concept, scientists have relied upon quantum theory to define the behavior of particles in time and space, coming up with complex equations that predict where and when electrons are in their whizzing orbit around an atom’s proton-packed nucleus.
The Schrödinger equation governs the atomic structure, describing a wave function. But actually observing that structure would inevitably destroy it.
That changes, thanks to a newly developed “quantum microscope,” invented by Aneta Stodolna, of the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics (AMOLF) in the Netherlands and her colleagues and described in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Stodolna’s experiment imaged the wave function of a hydrogen atom. Hydrogen is uniquely suited for the new photography technique because the first element in the periodic chart contains just a single electron.
“This experiment -- initially proposed more than 30 years ago -- provides a unique look at one of the few atomic systems that has an analytical solution to the Schrödinger equation,” wrote Christopher T. L. Smeenk of the University of Ottawa’s Joint Attosecond Science Laboratory, in an essay that accompanied the experiment.
Stodolna zapped the atom with laser pulses, which forced the ionized electron to escape from the hydrogen atom along direct and indirect trajectories. The phase difference between these trajectories leads to an interference pattern, which Stodolna magnified with an electrostatic lens and captured -- the first ever such photo.