Research, Technology

Physicists have obtained a detailed image of the nucleus inside the atom

More than a hundred years ago, the British physicist ErnestResenford conducted a series of experiments that formed the basis of our understanding of the structure of atoms and radioactivity. His discovery of the atomic nucleus (and the first artificial transformation of atomic nuclei) led to the creation of a new concept of matter, according to which electrons, like planets, move in orbits around the atomic nucleus located in the center. In 1911, Rutherford suggested that the nucleus of an atom has a positive charge, which determines the total number of electrons in the atomic shell. Ultimately, the discoveries of Rutherford, Niels Bohr, Hans Geiger and Peter Kapitza showed that the atomic nucleus does have a positive charge, and the electrons surrounding it (more precisely, electron clouds) have a negative charge. It is noteworthy that the discoveries of outstanding physicists were made without directly observing atoms, but today everything has changed - recently, researchers from the Brookhaven National Laboratory reported that they were able to image the nucleus of an atom in an electric field. For the first time in history.

.In January 2023, scientists compiled a detailed map of the location of elementary particles in the nucleus of an atomic nucleus.


  • 1 The first image of an atom
  • 2 Electronic ptychography method
  • 3 Image of a nucleus inside an atom
  • 4 How to see an atom?

First image of an atom

Atoms are so small that you can see themto the naked eye, even with the most powerful microscope, is impossible. At least that was the case until 2009, when physicists photographed the atom and its surrounding electrons. The images, published in the journal Physical Review B, show detailed images of the electron cloud of a single carbon atom.

Note that this is the first time that scientistsable to directly observe the internal structure of the atom. Prior to that, starting in the 1980s, physicists mapped the atomic structure of a material using mathematics and imaging techniques.

The first picture of a carbon atom was taken by scientists fromKharkov Institute of Physics and Technology in Kharkov, Ukraine in 2009. Their images of the electrons of a single atom confirm the principles of quantum mechanics. On the imageb you can see the carbon chain of atoms.

Part of the problem was that according toAccording to the principles of quantum mechanics, an electron does not exist as a single point that can be seen - it propagates around the nucleus in a cloud called an orbital. The pale blue spheres and split clouds in the image show two arrangements of electrons in orbitals in the carbon atom. These structures confirm the early findings of scientists, as they correspond to the established principles of quantum mechanics.

More on the topic: Scientists have observed a new kind of quantum entanglement inside atomic nuclei

Electronic ptychography method

The next step towards the observation of the atomicstructure was the invention of scientists from Cornell University, who managed to build a powerful detector and set a world record by tripling the resolution of a modern electron microscope. The work was published in the scientific journal Science.

This instrument is a detectorpixel array electron microscope (EMPAD) with built-in 3D reconstruction algorithms, which was able to capture the thermal vibration of atoms and get a new image of them in three dimensions. Until 2021, all past attempts to represent and study individual atoms were reduced to blurry images.

Here is an electronic ptychographic reconstruction of a praseodymium orthoscandate (PrScO3) crystal magnified 100 million times.

The resulting image became possible thanks to a method called electronic ptychography (ptychography) is a scanning technique for obtaining images of objects of extremely small size, such as electrons and x-rays.

Read more about how ptychography will allow scientists to detect individual atoms in three dimensions and in what other areas of science this technology can be applied here.

Picture of a nucleus inside an atom

So here we come to the lasttruly amazing discovery. This time, the instrument of physicists was not the electron microscope, but the relativistic heavy ion collider (RHIC), which is based on the principle of quantum entanglement.

Recall that quantum entanglement is called the connection of two (or more) particles, propertieswhich remain the same regardless of how far these particles are from each other. Albert Einstein, by the way, called entanglement "supernatural".

RHIC (The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider) is a relativistic heavy ion collider located at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the United States.

Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) - a particle accelerator designed to studycollisions between heavy ions (gold, copper, uranium, etc.) at relativistic speeds. As the authors of the image explain, the principle of operation of the collider resembles the method of positron emission tomography (PET), which allows you to see what is happening inside the brain and other organs.

See also: The main scientific discoveries of 2022 according to

Thanks to the new method, physicists were able to gain an understanding of the internal structure of atoms, as well as become witnesses a new type of quantum entanglement. The study of this effect is considered one of thethe most promising in modern physics - during the experiment, scientists observed photons and gold ions at the moment of their acceleration around the RHIC collider and, as a result, looked inside atomic nuclei.

How to see an atom?

The atomic nucleus is made up of neutrons and protonsconsisting of quarks and gluons that bind them. Due to a series of quantum fluctuations during the experiment, photons entered into interaction with gluons, forming an intermediate particle ("ro"), the immediate decay of which formed two so-called "pions" - π+ and π-. The information obtained makes it possible to display the location of gluons in the nucleus of an atom with detailed accuracy.

Here is an intriguing image of the atom, the closest to how they actually look.

Still see the atom and its nucleus as one's owneyes is impossible. The new image, published in early 2023, was taken at a long exposure, but even the most powerful scientific instruments can hardly capture elementary particles, since they are incredibly small.

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But what is especially important - and a new imagethe structures of atomic nuclei and previous images taken in 2009 and 2021 are consistent with theoretical predictions and fundamental principles of quantum mechanics. Besides, this the first ever experimental observation of quantum entanglement (and its new form) between dissimilar particles.

However, the subatomic world remains a mystery to scientists who are trying to figure out how our reality is formed. The task is not easy, you will agree.

Everything around us, including ourselves, is made up of tiny, invisible particles that are constantly interacting with each other.

Don't Miss: The World in Superposition: Three Theories of Parallel Universes

Fortunately, future experiments at RHIC (and alsoother colliders and even more powerful instruments) will allow physicists not only to study in detail the distribution of gluons inside atomic nuclei, but to better understand the complex and mysterious structure of the Universe. More about whether particles can appear from nothing we talked about in this article, we recommend reading.