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My tryst with the unimaginable…

March 5, 2010

Mohan, mdashf


What’s the smallest scale of distance we hope to measure or we have almost measured using our most modern techniques and equipments is something of a scientific discussion we can have in the coziest of environ, usually available to someone who has an iota of interest in such insights.

And in such a discussion I had, with someone, I was asked a few questions which are as fundamental and interesting to the lay audience at the same time as they could be. To be mentioned specifically is this one: Do we really see something we call an atom, or a molecule to exaggerate for the purpose of satisfying our imagination for the macroscopic scale?

[boom…bizarre…how can we call something of a molecule a macroscopic reality?]

Well anybody who can submit himself to an insight which is uncanny and unusual at the same time for the layman has the probable aptitude for such a misnomer especially since the mechanics of the smallest is precisely understood and helplessly acceptable.

In that world of the smallest by which I mean an atom or a proton or a bound state of a couple of quarks, a molecule has a macroscopic presence. Yes, for the lay audience, again, an orgy of many quarks has been known to exist or at-least has been espoused in experimental ways which I have been an audience to and where I have had my personal contributions as a hard-toiling citizen experimentalist.

And the answer could be a prototype of what I can always remember even if all my scientific prejudices are busted, all my scientific facilities are doomed or all my interest quivers like a skidding automobile does on a uncontrollable unpredictable sheet of icing on the most unexpected patch of the highway.

Its something of a very fundamental intuition in understanding and aptly answering that piece of question. “What do we really mean by we see an atom? or for that matter a gross object that we hold in stark contrast to an atom for the gratification of our average sensory system?? ”

We mean we see them, we mean we really see them. But that also means we see them because how the bunch of light particles bounces off of such objects and how we have grown to form impressions about such objects and their “see-ability” via such a process.

Now this light-reflection or more precisely “visible” light reflection might not be available in all the situations where we try to see something whose “see-ability” itself is of an esoteric concern.

We do see the vastness of the Universe not through the visible light rays but through the more powerful candidates for the detection such as the X-ray [a preferred candidate as well] or the UV rays.

And when we convert our X-ray image back into something that our eyes can readily perceive we claim we have seen and we have. And we claim we have seen a source of unusual radiation or no radiation, such as a black-hole, sans its Hawking leakage. And we make more truthful representation of our ability to see such cosmological objects.

Such a notion of our ability to see extremely tiny objects is also a significant claim of the philosophy of vision of such otherwise inaccessible visual reality although when we come down to the discussion of such small objects our claims are further complicated by our knowledge of the small aka quantum mechanics and wave particle duality.

Nonetheless one can give an example of such “see-ability” in the last one decade which was impossible in the preceding 8 decades of knowledge of the behavior of such small objects. I am evincing the power of an invention made in the last 1 or 2 decades, an atomic force microscope or a STM [scanning tunneling microscope] which in its output acts no less than an ordinary microscope in giving us direct vision to the wickedly small that escapes our ability to see them.

But in its input there are technologies that surpasses our common-sensical knowledge of the world around us even if in reality such a world consists of the tiny realities that escape our common sense at the first place.

This involves a probe which uses other physical quantities as a variable to detect the structure than the direct intensity of light that fall on the object and reflects, such as in a camera.

And when such other than light signals are converted in a way that gives an impression, howsoever partially the information is retrieved, of an image readily perceived by our eyes we claim we have or we can see it as in we have seen it, much in the same way we have seen the moon.

So in the last decade or so we have seen or we have created a great potential to see the atom, disrespectful of the question, “directly or indirectly?”

In another 6 decades when people will be buying use and throw cameras from wal-mart to take pictures of atoms and molecules we wouldn’t be concerned about such a question. May be just the scientists will be.

But before the passage of those 60 years, now, in 2010, I can wholeheartedly claim to have seen an atom and a multitude of them in a microscope which I don’t want to categorize as a gadget any different from the one which is a regular eye opener like the one you find in a dilapidated laboratory of Maxwell. Did he really have one or anyone of his time did is a question you shoot at a historian.

This is my tryst with the imaginable. I just bothered to talk about it because this is close to my heart for 15 years now shooting its ugly head from memory of a discussion about the meaning of seeing something. I didn’t have a sophisticated answer and 5 years from now I will have a more sophisticated answer.

But my tryst with the unimaginable concerns with our ability to detect scales which are much smaller than an atom which has been possible. But how far down have we really been?

I never pondered to ask myself that question until very recently when I downloaded a technical description of a detector that is on a mission to evince the presence of gravitational wave-particles in the making of our Universe.

This detector which uses the principle of interferometry to detect a distance scale as small as 100th of a proton which is 10th of an atom, therefore 1000th of an atom in total, is an ongoing experiment that provides much promise in the way of experimental discovery that has the potential to be one of the most remarkable discovery of the century, the gravitational wave-particle.

I read through a summary of this experiment called advanced LIGO and another related measurement that they performed to evince the pleasure of progress of real fundamental science in a way which gives credence to many worthwhile schemes of theoretical physics itself such as making aptly clear how a precise measurement of strains at the level of quantum mechanical system extends to the reality at the non-quantum or the classical level itself.

The specific article [in “New Journal of Physics”] is about measuring the near quantum mechanical state of an object [which can be as large as 1 kg] which is like saying we can measure a deflection of such an object to the scale as small as “10 to the negative 18” thereby measuring its oscillation which has got to be in the scale of 1000th of an atom’s extent and hence essentially quantum mechanical in nature.

In the only other words possible “The quantum mechanical behavior of a large object such as your mom’s head is measurable by present day detectors” and its only possible because we can measure particles of the size of 1000th of an atom.

If you happen to know that there are already grand equipments on this earth or a planetary system where we have sent one which can measure such distances or particles of such extent then you are the one who should be writing another essay to talk about our ability to “see” the smallest.

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