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The Nano Level: How We See The Unseen

Posted by :Cambrian

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By definition nanometers are extremely small. At a billionth of a meter they are impossible to imagine, let alone view. Many great analogies help us to picture these tiny proportions but the point of this article is that standard microscopes do not come close in scale. Nanometers are way too small. The physics involved in this environment requires special instruments.


In the 1930’s German engineers Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska made the first electron microscope, using electron beams to magnify samples up to a million times. It was a breakthrough and later it showed that we need an entirely new system of magnifying to look further.


A new instrument won its inventors the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics. It is called the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) and has strong magnification capabilities. This microscope offered a new method for visualizing the nano world. It runs an incredibly sharp stylus over the sample and sends electron signals. With the contours plotted, an incredibly magnified image of the sample can be shown on a computer screen. This way of seeing by feeling is a creative way of blending senses.


The STM inspired the microscope that we use today, the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM). The AFM employs the same method of seeing by feeling as the STM but instead of using a stylus it has a focused laser. The laser reflects off of a lever with its tip touching the sample surface. The reflected beam then hits a photodiode which relays the information into the computer. The electron signals of the STM forced the sample to be conductive to work; the AFM does not have that issue. AFM can work in many different temperatures too.


Around the world scientists turn touch to sight so that they can view and manipulate atoms. We have overcome many complications with through human creativity. We will continue to solve problems by blending senses.

photo credit to Altair Enlighten

Tag(s) : senses, microscope, nanometers, Scanning Tunneling Microscope, Atomic Force Microscope, Nano Level,    

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