From all of our discussions it should be clear by now what an incredibly visual species we are. It is in our genes. So it should be of no surprise that scientists are just as visual as everyone else. I used to think that biologists were pretty visual. If they couldn’t see, or at least picture something, they wouldn’t believe in it. I thought that physicists were , at least partially immune to all of this. You know, more abstract and mathematical in their thinking. But then I started to get excited the first time that I saw what are called nearfield images of single molecules of rows of benzene rings. And after that there was this wonderful electron microscope series of Uranium atoms dancing randomly in thermal motion.
But still, or so I thought, we were never going to see the structure of an individual atom. We were never going to see what are called the probability wave functions of say the hydrogen atom. In quantum mechanics objects like electrons and protons don’t occupy a single point in space rather where they are is a fuzzy area, and the mathematical formula that describes this area is called its probability wavefunction. This quantum mechanical phenomenon seemed safely sacred, something we had to calculate using Schrodinger’s equation (Yes, the guy with the cat) and then visualize in our minds eye.
Well, the thing is that physicists love a challenge and humans, especially scientists, take limits as challenges to our intellectual manhood. Still I was astonished today when I read that Aneta Stodolna of the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics (AMOLF) in the Netherlands and her team have used a quantum or photoionization microscope to take the world’s first picture of the electron orbitals in the hydrogen atom.
This is really the stuff that “wows” are made of. It truly appeals to our need for confirmation of something abstract with our eyes. If we expand our definition of the camera, as I believe we must, to include other imaging devices and other regions of the spectrum, we are suddenly confronted by science at its best enabling us to see what was previously unseen. On an intellectual plane, I am reminded again of Tennyson’s Ulysses and the margins that forever fade against the unstoppable light of human endeavor. In physics this is something rare. So much of particle physics and astrophysics are not truly accessible visually. We are more often than not forced to take experimental results, put it in a mathematical context, and theorize. No one is ever going to see the Big Bang, for instance. Yet we can detect its remnants and see it with our mind’s eye.*
*HAMLET – “My father, methinks I see my father”
HORATIO – “Where, my lord?”
HAMLET – “In my minds eye, Horatio.”