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6 Microscopic Images That Will Blow Your Mind

#3. The Secret of Life, Part 2

But what's that? You want to look closer? You want to see the secret of all life, including invisible viruses? Sure, we worked that out ages ago.


That's a DNA replication fork, the actual point at which the genetic instructions for building everything alive are split and copied to do exactly that. DNA replication is the most important process in life on Earth. It's the point of every organism there is, from maintaining your own DNA to improving it by mixing it with someone else's to spawn those that shall dominate the future. (Or whatever your child-rearing strategy is.) And that's not a new image. It's so easily observed that researchers (in this case, the University of Zurich) show it as the normal case to compare against things they're investigating (in this case, making chemotherapy more effective. You know, little things like that).

"Man, while we're wasting our time fighting cancer, Donald Trump has a reality show!"

These images are viewed by electron microscope, because electrons are what we use when light is too big. Electrons have a wavelength 100,000 times smaller than visible light -- oh, and electrons have a wavelength. We strip them off their atoms, accelerate them through hundreds of thousands of volts, fire them at a target and, despite simultaneously sounding like three different kinds of science-fiction blaster, we end up with a picture instead of a sparking crater. The first working electron microscope was built in 1933. That's two years before the first working parking meter.

#2. The Single-Atom Shadow

"Millikelvin Spatial Thermometry of Trapped Ions, BG Norton et al, New Journal of Physics, November 2011

"Absorption Imaging of a Single Atom," Erik Streed et al, Nature Communications, July 2012

The shadow cast by a single atom sounds like an emo Facebook status, but it's the exact opposite: useful and intelligent. Earlier we told you that optical techniques have limits, but scientists react to fundamental physical limits the same way bewhiskered gentlemen react to a slap to the face. The Australian Center for Quantum Dynamics promptly earned their awesome, awesome name by isolating and imaging a single atom.

Ben Norton et al, Griffith University via CISRA
It looked like your ship exploding in an '80s arcade game.

Then they doubled down by going for the single atom's shadow. Which is like trying to find your cat's national deficit: It's too small to apply such concepts, and the idea sounds stupid. But scientists don't care about sounding stupid, which is what makes them not stupid, and they did it anyway. The shadow apparatus holds the atom in a radio frequency trap, subjects it to laser cooling, hits it with a laser beam a thousand times larger than the target and, yes, every single part of this system sounds like it's trying to kill Flash Gordon.

The world's smartest lava lamp.

This is where the lines between madness and genius are just the marks on a physicist's blackboard. The image is focused by a phase Fresnel lens (also known as a zone plate, that set of circles in the middle of the image above). This is a fairly standard laser physics component, and also mind-bendingly insane. Regular lenses work by refraction -- physical material bending light -- but can only focus down to a fundamental limit. Which is why zone plates judo reality's own crazier effects against it. Laser light can interfere with itself, meaning bits of laser light can add up to get brighter (of course) or cancel out to create a dark spot (which is crazy). The plate instead blocks all the light that would have added up anywhere but at the target. The result is a bright spot as all the remaining laser light focuses. No bending, no redirection, the light that passed through hasn't been touched by anything: Zone plates are just so badass that they don't even need a knife to cut that punk-ass laser beam until it does what it's told.

The result? The smallest drop of darkness ever seen.

Griffith University via National Geographic
Enough genuine darkness for one atom or 40 teenage goths.

#1. Single-Molecule Motor

"Experimental Demonstration of a Single-Molecule Electric Motor," H L Tierney et al, Nature Nanotechnology, September 2011

Prepare to see the most impressive unimpressive picture ever made.

DOI: 10.1038/NNANO.2011.142
An egg hatching into a Fukishiman starfish?

And we mean made. That's a single-molecule nanomotor, an electrical engine built at the very limits of materials even existing. On the left it's holding still, on the right it's spinning so fast that it looks like the petals of a flower, and those white scale bars are one billionth of a meter. Why does it look hexagonal instead of circular? Because the copper atoms underneath it have a hexagonal layout. The motor is skipping over the grooves between atoms, and doing it so fast that it looks like a blur.

It also looks like a transparent-skulled alien missing an arm.

This picture was taken with a scanning tunneling microscope (STM), the most brilliantly insane measuring device ever constructed by man. "Tunneling" is one of many quantum mechanical ideas so ludicrous, we'd laugh if they didn't actually work. In classical physics, if something doesn't have enough energy to do something (like jump over a barrier), it doesn't happen. In quantum mechanics, there's a non-zero chance to "tunnel" through the energy barrier and appear on the other side.

Come on, quantum, get me out of here.

The more often it bounces against the barrier, the faster it'll escape. This is clearly nonsensical, and exactly how all radioactive materials work. Particles tunnel through the barrier holding them in the nucleus like it was a prison camp. So we took this impossibility of existence and turned it into a ruler. An STM works by holding a tip over a sample, far enough away that it's impossible for electrons to hop across and generate a current, then measures the current.

Tufts University
Yes, STMs do always look like doomsday devices.

It's already the most amazing device we have, and Dr. Sykes' team at Tufts University used it to drive the smallest manmade motor in existence: a single atom. The reality-taunting current now drives a butyl methyl sulphide molecule, whipping the butyl and methyl rotors around the central sulphur axle. A one-atom axle. Different tips and distances can influence the direction of motion, generating a net rotation in the desired direction.

The picture was taken by the same machine that drives the motor. It's like we're taking the piss out of quantum mechanics. "Oh, you made reality so that things change when we look at them? Then we'll BUILD MOTORS THAT WORK LIKE THAT!"

Luke tumbles and responds to every single tweet.

Luke also looks at the Three Craziest Conspiracy Theories and drinks 6 Real James Bond cocktails..

For more Cracked science, check out 6 Badass Spacecraft Landings Humanity Totally Nailed and 3 Science Fictions We Really Built. In September.

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