6 Microscopic Images That Will Blow Your Mind

We're amazing. We're monkeys that won by being better at screwing each other and other species (in different ways) than anything else, and we've gone from "screeching simian sex" to "hammering bits of shiny metal until they show us the universe." We're the middle of the magnificence sandwich, our minds double-teamed by exploding galaxies on one end and crystalline beauty on the other. And those images are so freely available, there are people right now wondering whether to bother clicking those links or just check Facebook.

"The universe's status: It's complicated."

Most microscopic slideshows show pretty, false-color pictures and shout "wow" until people agree that it's beautiful. But if I wanted false colors impressing people who don't understand the science, I'd ask why White Jesus cheerleaders don't accept evolution. The tools taking these amazing images are just as amazing as what they're looking at. A good camera might make sunsets look pretty, but this equipment teaches us more about reality than an LSD-laced zen monastery. These images aren't a mere thousand words; each is a thesis on humanity's achievements.

#6. Atomic Bond Images

"Bond-Order Discrimination by Atomic Force Microscopy," Leo Gross et al, Science, September 2012

DOI: 10.1126/science.1225621

That's not a disco beehive -- that's staring so hard that you can see the mortar holding reality together. Those green lines are the actual atomic bonds inside a molecule. This isn't an artist's impression: That's an atomic force microscope (AFM) image of electron density. The green bars are the joints between atoms, the scaffold supporting everything. The red cells are the void between atoms in even the most solid material. We're now so good at seeing molecules that we can make them look like the stick-and-ball models from chemistry class.

DOI: 10.1126/science.1225621
Left: model. Right: existence.
(An A is an angstrom, one ten-billionth of a meter.)

The earliest tool in scientific investigation was "poking things with a stick," and AFM is the top level of that tech tree. The stick is now one molecule. When it presses against something, it bends a micromachined lever, reflecting a laser beam. It measures reality with a Rube Goldberg machine made out of the most awesome devices we've ever built. And then we made it even better. IBM recorded the above image using non-contact AFM, where we got so smart that we could poke things without touching them. Presumably so that the atoms can't get mad.

When smartphones come with lasers, this will end differently.

Non-contact AFM uses the force (specifically, the Van der Waals force), which alters the vibration of the single-molecule tip. This rapidly oscillates the laser beam in the world's tiniest and most scientifically accurate rave. This vibration shows that the tip is near something. (Like dowsing, except based on everything we've ever learned about reality, instead of in stark defiance of it.) The system is so sensitive that it can only be used at 5 degrees above absolute zero. (I don't need to say which kind of degree; that Fahrenheit nonsense doesn't even know there is an absolute zero.) These molecular masters are so good at their jobs that, while most people celebrated the Olympics by clicking "refresh" on sports pages instead of working, they built a new molecule.

Olympicene. They didn't make up the word, they made up the material.

#5. Atomic Maps of Virus Shells

"Atomic Structure Reveals the Unique Capsid Organization of a dsRNA Virus," Junhua Pan et al, PNAS, March 2009


That looks like fractal art, a pattern generated by an endlessly iterating process that happens to affect humans. Which is sort of the case, because it's hepatitis E. But isn't it pretty? Sure, it might be a horrible disease spread by fecal contamination of water supplies, but if you spend time getting really close to something, you can learn to see its beauty. Which will help you kill it.

Rice University via PopSci
R'lyehian Goatse

This one is the Penicillium stoloniferum Virus F (PsV-F), which can't infect humans, but shares a spherical shell design with hordes of rotaviruses that can. The images were created by the Professor Yizhi Jane Tao laboratory in Rice University. They crystallized the virus and bounced high-energy radiation off it, which sounds like a wizard torturing something for information. Junhua Pan bombarded the virus with radiation from the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), because science, high-power radiation sources and awesome acronyms are just some of the advantages we have over everything else that ever lived. It's the same basic X-ray diffraction technique that revealed DNA. The result is the highest resolution image of any virus, a full 3-D map of all 5 million atoms in the virus' protective shell.

"Four million nine hundred and ninety thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight, four million nine hundred ..."

For most of human history, we didn't know what caused disease. We used to think that fresh air was bad for you. Old women were burned when cows got sick. People used to decapitate each other, dump the heads in the river, then drink downstream; they weren't even trying to gain the intelligence of their fallen foes, because intelligence just isn't a factor for people who drink rotting-head juice. Now we know things. Think of that picture every time you see the vaccination "debate." Scientists study viruses so hard that we know where every single atom is. Jenny McCarthy showed her tits for a living, and she didn't even know how those worked, hiring professionals to install them instead.

"One. Tuh. Too. T- uh, what comes after one again?"

#4. The Secret of Life

Kuan-Chung Su, Mark Petronczki, London Research Institute

People ask for the secret of life, and when scientists explain DNA replication, the people wave their hands and say "Not that." Which means that one of the two sides didn't understand the question. Hint: It's not the one capable of images like this:

London Research Institute
God's Spirograph.

That's cell replication. That's the answer. A lot of people don't like that, because those people are asking "How do I feel good despite no longer having to use all my energy to avoid being eaten or dying of starvation?" Which is a much less glamorous question, and at least partly rhetorical. The image was taken by Kuan-Chung Su and Mark Petronczki of the London Research Institute. It's life, happening, with one minute between each step in the process. It's also proof that if there is a creator, he's a total bastard. Because that's an immortal cancer cell. It turns out flesh can last forever without aging and inevitable death. But only as tumors. Thanks, mysterious ways!

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Luke McKinney

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