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February 6, 2012
Glass Structure, Atom by Atom
For a really stunning electron micrograph of the thinnest possible layer of glass, see here. (If you don't have journal access, here's a release with some details). What's even more striking is that the semi-random arrangement of atoms is basically an exact match of a hypothesis from 1932 by W. H. Zachariasen at Chicago.
And maybe it's just me, but high-resolution images of molecular structure like this still give me the shivers. I mean, I've seen all sorts of electron density maps from X-ray crystallography, but somehow this sort of thing gives one a more direct feeling of looking at the individual atoms. And for some reason, that seems like something Man Was Not Meant to Do - perhaps it's all those old elementary school textbooks that told me that atoms could never be seen. (Then again, philosopher Mortimer Adler made the same assumption, as I found to my surprise when I read his Ten Philosophical Mistakes, on page 184 if you're keeping score at home.
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