It is stunning that this first of its kind image and description of how it was taken can be studied by anyone with an internet browser — almost immediately upon its discovery. It will be many months at least before this new insight into and picture of molecules will be delivered to students in a printed textbook.
The machine in the illustration is an Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) explained by physicist Ethan Siegel at his StartsWithABang blog. Siegel describes how the AFM works: “Basically, you make a tiny, sharp, atomic needle that you move over the top of a molecule. When you approach different atoms in a molecule, the electric forces either attract or repel the needle. As the needle moves up and down, the handle that it’s attached to feels forces and torque. So, all you have to do is measure these tiny changes in force and torque, and you can image the molecule beneath it.”
The gray inset image is what the AFM let’s us see. Siegel comments that: “You can even see that the electrons like to live on the outside edges of the carbon rings, and that there are fourteen tiny hydrogen atoms bonded to the carbon atoms at various points. What an amazing picture; the entire molecule is only 1.4 nanometers across!”
The inset image is from BBC’s report of 8/28/09 titled “Single molecule’s stunning image.” Several developing concepts are highlighted in the BBC report, each of them offering potential for nano technologies where work will be done at the molecular level. A post at Gizmodo by Jack Loftus explains why what is displayed in the inset images is a stunning breakthrough: “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.”