“Quantum microscope” peers into the hydrogen atom

By | May 24, 2013

20130524-084815.jpgThe first direct observation of the orbital structure of an excited hydrogen atom has been made by an international team of researchers. The observation was made using a newly developed “quantum microscope”, which uses photoionization microscopy to visualize the structure directly. The team’s demonstration proves that “photoionization microscopy”, which was first proposed more than 30 years ago, can be experimentally realized and can serve as a tool to explore the subtleties of quantum mechanics….

The wavefunction is a central tenet of quantum theory – put simply, it contains the maximum knowledge that is available about the state of a quantum system. More specifically, the wavefunction is the solution to the Schrödinger equation. The square of the wavefunction describes the probability of where exactly a particle might be located at a given time. Although it features prominently in quantum theory, directly measuring or observing the wavefunction is no easy task, as any direct observation destroys the wavefunction before it can be fully observed.

In the past, “Rydberg wavepacket” experiments have tried to observe the wavefunction using ultrafast laser pulses. In these experiments, the atoms are in a superposition of their highly excited “Rydberg states”. These experiments show that the periodic electron orbitals around nuclei are described by coherent superpositions of quantum-mechanical stationary states. The wavefunction of each of these states is a standing wave with a nodal pattern (a “node” is where there is zero probability of finding an electron) that reflects the quantum numbers of the state. While previous experiments have attempted to capture the elusive wavefunction or the nodal patterns, the methods used were not successful. Direct observation of the nodal structure of a single atom being most difficult to achieve…


2 thoughts on ““Quantum microscope” peers into the hydrogen atom

  1. Michael

    That simply blows my mind. It is a testament to the pace at which things change in the modern world. Eighty years ago or so we could not explain all the mass of an atom until the existence of the neutron was verified. Today, we’re looking at atomic orbitals with microscopes.

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