Physicists Just 'Held' an Individual Atom for the First Time

Visual representation of an oganesson atom's subshells and orbitals. TokyoMetropolitanArea69 [CC 4.0 License]/Wiki Commons

Physics has taught us that grasping things on the tiniest of scales can be just as challenging as grasping them on the grandest of scales. Sometimes it seems that the universe is even more vast the closer we look.

But now a new breakthrough experiment could quite literally make the quantum world graspable in a way we never imagined possible before. For the first time, physicists at the University of Otago in New Zealand have figured out a way to "grab" an individual atom and observe its complex atomic interactions, reports Phys.org.

The experiment made use of a complex system of lasers, mirrors, microscopes and a vacuum chamber to mechanically observe an individual atom to study it first hand. This kind of direct observation is unprecedented; our understanding of how individual atoms behave has only been possible through statistical averaging to this point.

This therefore marks a new era in quantum physics, where we've gone from abstract imaginings of the atomic world to actual concrete inspection. It will allow us to test our abstract theorizing in a practical way.

How the experiment worked

"Our method involves the individual trapping and cooling of three atoms to a temperature of about a millionth of a Kelvin using highly focused laser beams in a hyper-evacuated (vacuum) chamber, around the size of a toaster. We slowly combine the traps containing the atoms to produce controlled interactions that we measure," explained Associate Professor Mikkel F. Andersen of Otago's Department of Physics.

The reason they began with three atoms is because "two atoms alone can't form a molecule, it takes at least three to do chemistry," according to researcher Marvin Weyland, who spearheaded the experiment.

Once the three atoms approach one another, two of them form a molecule. That leaves the third one available to snatch.

"Our work is the first time this basic process has been studied in isolation, and it turns out that it gave several surprising results that were not expected from previous measurement in large clouds of atoms," added Weyland.

One of those surprises was that it took much longer than expected for the atoms to form a molecule, compared to previous theoretical calculations. This might have implications for our theories that will allow us to fine tune them, making them more accurate and thus more powerful.

More immediately, however, this research will allow us to engineer and manipulate technology on the atomic level. It's engineering on a scale even tinier than the nano-scale, and it could have profound implications for the science of quantum computing.

"Research on being able to build on a smaller and smaller scale has powered much of the technological development over the past decades. For example, it is the sole reason that today's cellphones have more computing power than the supercomputers of the 1980s. Our research tries to pave the way for being able to build at the very smallest scale possible, namely the atomic scale, and I am thrilled to see how our discoveries will influence technological advancements in the future," added Andersen.

The research was published in the journal Physical Review Letters.