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.
Atomic Bond Images
"Bond-Order Discrimination by Atomic Force Microscopy," Leo Gross et al, Science, September 2012
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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:
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!
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.
YOU (AND EVERY LIVING THING YOU'VE EVER SEEN) ARE HERE
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.
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.
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.
Enough genuine darkness for one atom or 40 teenage goths.
"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.
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.
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!"
For more Cracked science, check out 6 Badass Spacecraft Landings Humanity Totally Nailed and 3 Science Fictions We Really Built. In September.