A Snapshot of the Inside of an Atom

sciencehabit writes “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 (abstract). Building on a 1981 proposal by three Russian theorists and more recent work that brought that proposal into the realm of possibility, the team first fired two lasers at hydrogen atoms inside a chamber, kicking off electrons at speeds and directions that depended on their underlying wave functions. A strong electric field inside the chamber guided the electrons to positions on a planar detector that depended on their initial velocities rather than on their initial positions. So the distribution of electrons striking the detector matched the wave function the electrons had at the moment they left their hydrogen nuclei behind. There may be practical applications in the future—a commentary accompanying the paper suggests that the method could aid in the development of technologies such as molecular wires, atom-thick conductors that could help shrink electronic devices—but that their result concerns ‘extremely fundamental’ physics that might be just as valuable for developing quantum intuition in the next generation of physicists.”

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