The World Has Changed and You Don’t Even Know It
Take a look at this:
That may turn out to be the most important photograph you ever look at.
Let me explain – this is the first time scientists have been able to take a picture of objects on a nano scale, as opposed to a logical artist’s description. To give you an idea of how difficult it was to actually accomplish this, IBM scientists in Zurich had to use an atomic force microscope (quite possibly the coolest-sounding scientific tool ever), along with a silicon microscale cantilever (ridiculously small needle) coated in carbon dioxide, frickin’ lazers (no word on whether or not they were attached to shark heads), and temperatures so cold that they’re not even on the Farenheit scale anymore (5 degrees Kelvin). On top of that, the AFM had to stay absolutely still for 20 hours, only 0.5 nanometers above the surface of the molecule.
Why so long? Ah, here comes the physics. When you’re dealing with sizes and distances in nano-scale terms, you’ve dropped out of the realm of “classical physics” and landed in the world of quantum physics. The quantum world is pretty freaky for a bunch of reasons, but the aspect that’s most notable in this context is the fact that observation alters that which one is observing. So when I say the AFM had to stay absolutely still, it had to stay absolutely still, because otherwise the image would have been completely altered, and so ruined. Because that’s the best part of this picture – the fact that for the first time ever, there’s a (relatively) clear picture of the 3D structure of a real molecule, and how carbon and hydrogen atoms line up in that structure.
Finally, the fact that it was IBM, a computing company, that pulled it off first doesn’t surprise me at all. This simple picture may very well be the first step on the path towards feasible quantum computers, which would arguably be capable for everything from breaking super-codes to one day possibly creating biological computers, and it only makes sense that one of the biggest tech companies in the world is in on the ground floor.