Say Hello To My Little Friend: The Atom, Imaged


I am fascinated with outer space, this is true. But if you stop to think about it, the inner space between the atoms is just as awe-inspiring as the vast distances separating the planets, stars and galaxies. In actuality the volume inside an hydrogen atom is essentially empty; the single electron “orbits” (if we consider the simple Bohr model of the atom) the central proton at a huge distance. It’s analogous to a quantum star system, where a planet orbits its parent star, hundreds of millions of miles away.

However, atoms aren’t as simple as Niels Bohr’s famous model (although Bohr’s model is none-the-less important as it always has been). The electrons occupy a cloud, rather than specific orbits, and the electron’s position cannot be defined as a point, more a statistically defined volume. As dictated by quantum theory these clouds vibrate at certain frequencies, depending on the electron energy. These electron energies are analogous to the simple electron “shells” physicists refer to in the textbooks; each progressively higher shell occupying a higher energy state. In reality, in the slightly fuzzy quantum world, the frequency of electron oscillation increases with energy.

Examples of electron atomic and molecular orbitals. The "lobes" are representative of the electron clouds surrounding the nuclei
Examples of electron atomic and molecular orbitals. The lobes are representative of the electron clouds surrounding the nuclei (source)

When I was in university, I loved seeing the different modes of electron energy in 3D visualizations of the atom (pictured right). Lobes of electron clouds vibrating at different energies seemed to make sense. But now, for the first time, the clearest photographs of a single atom have been taken, with lobes of electron clouds — as predicted by quantum theory — intact.

This research soon to be published in the journal Physical Review B, demonstrates detailed images of a single carbon atom’s electron cloud (pictured top). Taken by Ukrainian researchers at the Kharkov Institute for Physics and Technology in Kharkov, Ukraine, these images clearly show the electron cloud in two energy states.

This amazing feat was accomplished using a field-emission electron microscope. Although this microscope has aided physicists since the 1930’s to image the vanishingly small, the Ukrainian researchers have developed a new way of making the tool so sensitive, single atoms can be imaged. After arranging a ridged chain of carbon atoms (only tens of atoms long) inside a vacuum chamber, the researchers passed 425 volts through the atoms. At the tip of the chain, the end carbon atom emitted its electrons and a surrounding phosphor screen captured an image. This image was of the electron cloud surrounding the single carbon atom.

Up until this point, field emitting microscopes have only been able to resolve the arrangement of atoms in a sample. This is the first time physicists have been able to see the structure of an electron cloud around an atom.

It’s always nice to validate a bedrock physics theory with photographic evidence, it’s exciting to think what the Kharkov Institute scientists will do next…


Peter Higgs Discovers Higgs Boson… in the Mail!

Dr Peter Higgs holds his very own Higgs boson (©Particle Zoo/Peter Higgs)
Peter Higgs holds his very own Higgs boson (©Particle Zoo/Peter Higgs)

In October, something very special happened to me. There, on the doorstep, a Higgs boson sat, waiting to be picked up and unwrapped from his packaging (and yes, I can confirm, he is a he).

Of course, he wasn’t the same Higgs boson physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) were looking for, he was a Higgs boson plushie from Julie Peason’s Particle Zoo.

Since that day, Higgsy (as I affectionately call him) has been sitting on my desk, watching me write, whilst holding down a stack of papers when I have my office window open.

Yesterday, I received some more good news via email from my friend Julie, the Particle Zookeeper. The particle physicist whom the Higgs boson is named after has also discovered his very own Higgs boson… at his home in Scotland!
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Higgs Boson Discovered on Doorstep

You don’t need the Large Hadron Collider to discover the Higgs boson after all…

The moment of discovery. It turns out Higgsy is a little shy.
The moment of discovery. It turns out Higgsy is a little shy.

This evening I went outside to investigate a noise. On opening the door I saw a small box lying awkwardly on its side against a flower pot. A little confused (as there was no knock on the door to say there was a delivery), I picked the small package. The box was heavy. I gave it a shake. Something was rolling around in there. It didn’t make a sound.

On opening the box I couldn’t believe my eyes. There he was, hiding under styrofoam packaging, neatly wrapped in a clear plastic bag, the one particle EVERYONE wants to meet… the Higgs boson!

Far from being smug, the little guy was actually pretty shy and was reluctant to leave the comfort of his box. After a brief chat I assured him that he was safe from particle physicists wanting to see him spontaneously decay…

As you might have guessed, I didn’t discover a real Higgs particle on my doorstep (although we all know that it must be full of them… theoretically anyhow). My Higgs boson plushie has just travelled from the caring hands of its creator, Particle Zookeeper Julie Peasley…
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Particle Zoo: The Higgs Boson For Sale

Collect them all! The Standard Model of plushie particles (© Particle Zoo & Julie Peasley)
Collect them all! The Standard Model of plushie particles (© Particle Zoo & Julie Peasley)

Astroengine exclusive interview with Particle Zoo founder, Julie Peasley

The hunt for the Higgs particle may have come to grinding halt until 2009, but that doesn’t mean you can’t discover the elusive particle for yourself. In fact, it’s not just the Higgs boson that awaits discovery in the zoo of Standard Model particles. And what a zoo it is! We have protons, neutrons, the quarks that make up said hadrons; plus all the force carriers, neutrinos, photons, electrons and anti-particles. There is a delicious and varied array of subatomic particles out there, but they are too small for us to see. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what these quanta actually look like?

It seems that Particle Zookeeper Julie Peasley has an intimate connection with the tiny “beings” that make up all known matter in the Universe. She has single-handedly set up her own business putting faces to the complex particles, giving us a unique view into the quantum world we would otherwise forget in the soup of theoretical physics equations. The Particle Zoo is a Los Angeles company, where Julie brings particles to life in her “sweatshop of one,” sewing beautifully-made plushie toys of all the Standard Model particles so we can collect them all…
Continue reading “Particle Zoo: The Higgs Boson For Sale”