The first atom ever to have had its picture taken

My before bed reading the last few weeks has been Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura which is a philosophical tract written around 2000 years ago, whose arguments are based on the absolute assumption that everything in the universe is made up of atoms. Very radical in his time, and a belief that did not become part of our scientific understanding until the eighteenth century. FWIW my favourite book of the present century is The Swerve. No book has impressed on me, to speak in cliches, that everything changes and nothing lasts forever. Absolutely nothing about the world we are in and nothing we know about it will survive. And what The Swerve is about is how the last remaining copy of De Natura in the world was rediscovered in 1417. And then goes on to describe the world then in the context of the world when the Roman Empire was at its peak, and of course, with our world in the picture as well.

As for atoms, we now assume their existence even though no one has seen one, at least not until now. We also assume“there are between 10^78 to 10^82 atoms in the known, observable universe. In layman’s terms, that works out to between ten quadrillion vigintillion and one-hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion atoms.” Or to help with the numbers there are approximately 7 x 10^27 atoms in the average human body. And everyone of these was there at the Big Bang or maybe it was only the number of particles that were there, or whatever. But there they were. The mystery of existence will never be known.

And each of these atoms, as again I understand it, has a scale of size so that if we were inside St Peter’s in Rome, a speck of dust floating in the air would represent the size of the nucleus of an atom relative to the size of the atom represented by the cathedral. How is this possible?

So up above we have a picture of an atom taken just the other day: How a Student Photographed a Single Atom With a Store-Bought Camera. The entire picture is not, of course, the atom, but somewhere between those pointy metallic tubes and along the black line between them there is a tiny dot of a white speck. That is also not the atom, “it’s the light from an array of surrounding lasers being re-emitted by an atom”. Its not much, but out of the between ten quadrillion vigintillion and one-hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion atoms in the universe, that is one of only a handful humans have ever been able to see. Impossible and incredible, not the first atom ever to have had its picture taken; for that, which the above story led me to find, see below, a picture taken in 2013.

atom of hydrogen

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