From what I remember of chemistry, molecules were presented on computer screens, or at the very least with dowels and balls. Thanks to this incredible discovery, however, I'm jealous of how tomorrow's engineers will view—and control—nature's building blocks.
Now, the picture above is pretty unremarkable, right? Black and white (trivia: molecules have no color), grainy, shot in the kind of out-of-focus manner you expect from a guy like me, who can't seem to venture out beyond the Auto setting on his entry-level Nikon D40 DSLR. But wait a second. Doesn't the image kind of seem, well, familiar? Like high school chem class familiar? Balls and sticks familiar?
Here's another image; a computer generated image that's much more at home for anyone who studied atoms and molecules in the dead and gone days of 1997:
Make sense now? That B&W structure is an actual image of a molecule and its atomic bonds. The first of its kind, in fact, and a breakthrough for the crazy IBM scientists in Zurich who spent 20 straight hours staring at the "specimen"—which in this case was a 1.4 nanometer-long pentacene molecule comprised of 22 carbon atoms and 14 hydrogen atoms.
You can actually make out each of those atoms and their bonds, and it's thanks to this: An atomic force microscope.
Like the venerable electron microscope, but more powerful and with an eye for the third dimension, the AFM is able to make the nano world something we humans can appreciate visually. Using a silicon microscale cantilever coated in carbon dioxide (tiny, tiny needle), lasers, an "ultrahigh vacuum" and temperatures that hovered around 5 Kelvin, the AFM imaged the pentacene in nanometers. It did this while sitting a mere 0.5 nanometers above the surface and its previously invisible bonds for 20 long, unmoving hours. The length of time is noteworthy, said IBM scientist Leo Goss in statement from IBM, because any movement whatsoever would have disrupted the delicate atomic bonds and ruined the image.
And that's the real beauty of this image. For the first time ever we can see where each of those carbon and hydrogen atoms line up, and the overall symmetrical shape they create. In 3D.
That IBM, a hardware company, was the entity to accomplish this feat should be fairly obvious, given what we know (and don't yet know) about quantum computing. Said an IBM representative in an email to me this morning, "This pioneering achievement and the new insights gained from the experiments extend the ability of scientists to study matter with atomic resolution and open up exciting new possibilities for exploring electronic building blocks and devices at the ultimate atomic and molecular scale-devices that might be vastly smaller, faster and more energy-efficient than today's processors and memory devices."
In a quarkshell, that means this discovery might help future engineers manipulate atoms and their bonds, as well as create powerful, energy-sipping quantum computers for their cryptography needs, space travel or maybe even large black and yellow rooms that make our fantasies come true (or at the very least allow androids to play Sherlock Holmes).
But not so fast, Einstein. I see that tabletop subspace communicator you've imagined on your desktop. It's a great idea, and while I understand your enthusiasm for such things, as Matt explained earlier this month quantum computing, entangled desktops and Star Trek holodecks are all decades away, if not more.
What this discovery does do however is advance our primitive understanding of the Way Things Are. It's a small, nanometer-sized piece in a puzzle that doesn't even have all the pieces on the table yet. Hell, we don't even know where all the pieces are yet. From the looks of these images though, we will someday soon.