Nothing to see here. Just an instrument that reveals the building blocks of matter in all their itty-bitty glory.
This is a scanning tunneling microscope (STM), and just past the polished glass of that steel-rimmed window, we exploit a little quantum trickery to capture images of individual atoms. Who doesn’t want to see photography on the Ångstrom scale — that’s one ten-billionth of a meter — that could one day change the world?
Quantum tunneling, which is at least as cool as it sounds, makes this possible. Imagine an STM as a record player, but with a nanoscale needle that floats just above a surface. As that needle moves, electrons actually flow between each of the material’s atoms and the needle, creating an information-laden bridge — this is our quantum tunnel. Measuring that electron activity in turn reveals atomic details, and sophisticated computer programs convert them into images.
Even better, the scientists don’t just see the atoms — they can manipulate them, giving atomic-scale tattoos with the STM needle. Advancing these techniques could revolutionize the way we read and write digital information, ramping up speed while radically shrinking devices.
Not cool enough? Well, maybe you missed the world’s most impossibly tiny motion picture: A Boy and His Atom. IBM scientists made this charming film using an STM, and those are genuine atoms in the starring roles.