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How Best to Visualize Atomic and Subatomic?


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Hey all!

 

First post here! The basic story is, I've just recently come into this newfound love of science. There's a lot of backstory for it, but I won't bother with that. My issue is with just now coming into science (I'm 22), I'm having a really hard time visualizing/understanding the subatomic world, and I was wondering if you all could help me.

 

The main issue is that I don't really understand how we can perform experiments and operations on particles such as the electron or the protons, quarks, etc. if they're so small that we can't even see them. Let me give an example: electricity. The most basic way I've heard it described is the movement of electrons. How exactly do we know that we're moving electrons? Moreover, how do we intentionally move an electron instead of, say, a positron, proton, neutron, etc?

 

Another example is the idea of particle accelators. The LHC slams protons together, but I don't really understand how they're able to only slam protons together and accidentally slam a neutron into a proton, or an electron into a proton, etc.

 

Do these questions make sense? Again, my primary issue is with visualizing and understanding how we operate on the atomic scale. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

 

Thanks!

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We know there is a flow of electrons because we can detect a flow of electric charge across a conductor (and others).

 

Subatomic particles such as electrons, neutrons, and protons can exist outside of the atomic structure.

 

You can visualize an atom as a collection of different flavored quarks, of which different combinations together make protons and neutrons, surrounded by an atmosphere of electrons which are probably closer to the nucleus and less likely farther away but don't particularly stay in any position. Of course, to accurately run such a mental simulation, you'd have to learn the actual mathematical descriptions of these particles by really studying quantum mechanics and particle physics as well as have some damn good visualization abilities.

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Thanks!

 

Learning those things is on my list of things to do. All I want to do is eat until I explode...that is eat knowledge until my brain explodes :) I guess I'm still looking for answers, because my question more relates to how do we select a certain type of particle for a certain event? IE in the particle accelerators. How do they only fire protons at protons? Or electrons at electrons? etc. I don't have trouble visualizing a cartoon atom with it's electron shells and quarks in the protons and such, but rather I have some kind of mental disconnect between the cartoon atom and the real deal.

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Have you just graduated university? If so, what did you major in?

 

Particle accelerators are a specific matter and if you'd like to know exactly how the different components of the collisions are generated (eg, proton and electron beams) then you can go and study high energy physics and particle accelerators. The results of such collisions are different, which seems to be how they'd be differentiated just by that.

 

What is this mental disconnect?

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Electricity being moving electrons: in the past, the question was so little obvious that the ancestors didn't know the answer and chose the wrong sign convention for electric charges, alas - we must presently live with negative electrons.

 

Their first hint was when they observed charges transported through vacuum, and these were only negative.

 

Select only protons for a beam: particles feel a lateral force when moving in a magnetic field, to which light particles respond much and heavy ones little. Pass the particles through a first hole, deviate them with a magnetic field, and a second hole lets only pass those with the desired mass.

 

Starting from normal matter, one won't get positrons or neutrons by chance - only electrons and ions, easily distinguished by their charge - and +. Then, ions (= atoms with fewer electrons) can be separated by the magnetic field, which is then called a "mass spectrograph".

 

If the initial matter is normal hydrogen, one gets as ions: protons, a few deuterons, and more ions resulting from impure hydrogen and pollution by the apparatus. Most ions are thus protons.

 

Neutrons can't be accelerated nor channeled by a collider, because they lack the electric charge required to accelerate them and deviate them. Though, collisions are possible if the accelerator uses heavier ions that contains said neutrons and protons, whose charge makes them suitable. The LHC does it with lead ions, when it doesn't collide just protons.

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Hey all!

 

First post here! The basic story is, I've just recently come into this newfound love of science. There's a lot of backstory for it, but I won't bother with that. My issue is with just now coming into science (I'm 22), I'm having a really hard time visualizing/understanding the subatomic world, and I was wondering if you all could help me.

 

The main issue is that I don't really understand how we can perform experiments and operations on particles such as the electron or the protons, quarks, etc. if they're so small that we can't even see them. Let me give an example: electricity. The most basic way I've heard it described is the movement of electrons. How exactly do we know that we're moving electrons? Moreover, how do we intentionally move an electron instead of, say, a positron, proton, neutron, etc?

 

Another example is the idea of particle accelators. The LHC slams protons together, but I don't really understand how they're able to only slam protons together and accidentally slam a neutron into a proton, or an electron into a proton, etc.

 

Do these questions make sense? Again, my primary issue is with visualizing and understanding how we operate on the atomic scale. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

 

Thanks!

 

I share the same curiosity you have. Visualizing atoms, with a clear image like in normal photos, is still impossible. We still know so little about atoms, and since there is always something smaller than what we know, probably we will never end to learn new things about atoms. But yet, even if we can't see them the way we would like, we can detect them (the same way we can detect things not only with our eyes, but also with our nose, ears, touch, bats have echolocation, we can detect things with a radar, etc). But it's interesting that we know more than Democritus and Dalton, only thanks to experiments. The game changer in my opinion has been quite recent, in 1798, when Volta observed that if he placed pieces of silver and zinc on his tongue he felt an acid taste. Did he see any electrons passing by saying hello? No, but yet he detected their presence. The discovery of a nucleus has been almost accidental, in 1909, when Rutherford shot Alpha particles from a radioactive material, through a thin layer of gold, and what happened? Happened that most Alpha particles went through the gold foil, or deflected, but very rarely bounced back. This showed that the atom must have almost all of its mass concentrated at its center, in a nucleus, and the vast majority of the atom is empty space. What a great experiment! Isn't it? These kind of experiments change our lives, and studying them or repeating them, is always exciting. See this good documentary from BBC, it's in three parts

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhgo9fAlAQQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtNdQ2UOG_0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MT8yeMzHvKY

Edited by Myuncle
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Visualizing atoms, with a clear image like in normal photos, is still impossible. We still know so little about atoms

Do you belong to the 21st century?

 

We have images of atoms since the tunnel effect microscope, around 1985. Meanwhile, even scanning electron microscopes show atoms.

 

Very much is known about atoms. Considerable progress has been made since Volta.

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Visualizing atoms, with a clear image like in normal photos, is still impossible.

 

 

Do you belong to the 21st century?

 

We have images of atoms since the tunnel effect microscope, around 1985. Meanwhile, even scanning electron microscopes show atoms.

 

But the images aren't clear like in normal photos are they? They are somewhat fuzzy. At least the ones I've seen. Still very cool though.

Edited by pears
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Do you belong to the 21st century?

 

We have images of atoms since the tunnel effect microscope, around 1985. Meanwhile, even scanning electron microscopes show atoms.

 

Very much is known about atoms. Considerable progress has been made since Volta.

I said clear images like in normal photos, we don't have them.

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Are you talking about a color photo?

Sharpness, the focal-ratio, contrast, image resolution, the ability of an imaging system to distinguish small details within space (usually two-dimensional space), angular resolution. If all these things were possible you would discover much more about atoms, subatomic particles, their behaviour etc. Zooming an image can be, in theory, infinite.

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Hey all!

 

Thanks so much for the replies. Sorry for my delay, been busy as heck!

 

In regards to the question of if I graduated uni, I have :) I came away with a music major in guitar/voice. But I actually want to write/direct films, and now be a scientist! lol

 

I don't want to go into too much backstory or offend anyone, but basically I come from a very fundamentalist Christian family. I've questioned things all my life but buried the questions due to fear of hell and fear of science sending me to hell! Alas, in the past year or so I've been through a lot of life changes, depression, etc. and I had to confront the questions I've been burying for so long. For better or for worse, I came out of it an atheist, and what I found is an absolute love for science (which actually wasn't that surprising to me) and a more satisfying purpose in life.

 

So, it's never too late to start learning! I'm eating knowledge everywhere I can. My issue with the atomc/subatomic is that...I guess I'm picturing them like bullets, if that makes sense. What I see in my mind is proton bullets fired out of a big gun called a particle accelator. Or, electron bullets fired out of a battery. Now, I'm trying to unify this with the idea of quantum field theory and understanding what exactly these particles are.

 

If my understanding is correct, quantum field theory states that there are no "particles" per se, but rather bagillions of fields, such as a proton field, electron field, quark field, and even a higgs field! What that means then is whenever we detect a "particle", it's really just a disturbance in one of those fields?

 

I think this is a lot of my issue, trying to figure out what exactly is meant by particles and fields. Is an atom actually a physical object? IE, if you could blow up an atom millions of times, could you actually hold it in your hand? The same question pertains to all of the subatomic particles such as protons, neutrons, quarks, etc.

 

Sorry if I'm being really confusing, it's frustrating for me too :P

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  • 3 weeks later...

The main issue is that I don't really understand how we can perform experiments and operations on particles such as the electron or the protons, quarks, etc. if they're so small that we can't even see them.

 

We can see particle traces in diffusion cloud chamber.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_chamber

 

I have build couple such devices.

 

The simplest one cost me equivalent of ~15 usd (40x25x25 cm size). In USA/EU might be more.

Single running cost (price of 1 kg dry ice) is ~3 usd here.

 

Result is like in this video:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Efgy1bV2aQo

 

In the video narrator is mentioning alpha particles thick traces. They are Helium-4 nucleus.

Beta radiation mentioned is electrons (beta decay-) or positrons (beta decay+).

Cosmic rays can be muons, pions, kaons etc.

Edited by Sensei
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