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Small Talk

August 6, 2010

Rheanna Sand

Blog by Rheanna Sand

Atomic physics seems so… cold war era. In our modern age, supercolliders are smashing protons to peer at quarks, and the nanotech industry is creating machines out of molecules. But, surprisingly, there is still a lot to learn about the lowly atom.

In the August 5th, 2010 issue of Nature, Eleftherios Goulielmakis and colleagues describe how they used ultrafast laser pulses to perturb atoms and essentially watch the electrons jump from orbital to orbital during a process called ionization. They used pulses at the femtosecond scale (one quadrillionth of a second) to excite the outer electrons, and pulses at the attosecond scale (one quintillionth of a second) to encourage the lower electrons to take their place. When this happened, the researchers could measure, in real time, the orbital flopping of the electrons. This could be used to understand how bonds are formed, and attoscale spectroscopy will surely be a useful tool in future studies.

And who knew that magnetizing electrons could make the world a better place? Electrons, as elementary particles, have a charge and a spin. All electrons carry a negative charge, but spin behaviour is random. This is why most substances aren't magnetized. If they were to conform to one direction of spin, or become "spin-polarized," they could be used to build smaller, faster electronic components, which would not only use less energy and produce less waste, but could have a booming market in celebrity SCRAM bracelets. I'm sure that's exactly what researcher Tim Gay at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln has in mind for his optical pump method for creating spin-polarized electrons.

Hey proton! Have you been eating right? South beach? Not purging I hope!? In the July 8th, 2010 issue of Nature, Randolf Pohl and others at the Max Plank Institute used a new technique to measure the volume of a proton with ten times the accuracy of previous methods. The result? The proton is apparently 4 percent smaller than originally thought… and in the realm of atomic physics, that's a pretty big deal. As in, needing to revise the entire theory of quantum electrodynamics, or even changing the value of a constant. A CONSTANT!!

So, don't think that atoms are out of fashion. If nothing else, remember this fact taken from The Disappearing Spoon: if you scaled a hydrogen atom to the size of a football field, a proton would be a tennis ball on the 50 yard line, and the electrons would be the size of pinheads whizzing around the stadium, blocking anything from coming in. Now THAT should blow anyone's mind, no matter what decade it is.

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