"Seeing" Subatomic Structures
How can subatomic structures be seen ? (nucleus, neutrons,
protons and electrons)
Seeing with your eyes:
A source of light is "aimed" at the object. The light is absorbed by
the object and then sent back out by the object. The light enters your
eyes. You brain interprets the patterns received by your eyes to create
a visual image of the object.
Seeing a sub-atomic particle:
A source of radiation is aimed at the particle. The radiation interacts
with the particle (perhaps absorption, perhaps pushed back without ever
making contact). Radiation is then sent back out due to this
interaction with the particle. Sensors detect this radiation. People
interpret the patterns received by the sensors to create a visual image
of the particle.
Dr. Ken Mellendorf
Illinois Central College
Your's is a profound scientific question, and I don't think there is a
single, simple answer. Traditions says we humans have "five senses" --
sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch -- and we do not know fully how all of
these work, and there is even some blurring of these senses.
Examples -- with your eyes closed, you can "feel" (or is it "see"?) the
radiation from a hot stove. You can also "feel" (or is it "hear"?) the
vibrations from a high amp speaker.
From the earliest stages of experimental science, humans (and other
species) have striven to extend the limitations of their ways of
observing -- magnifying glasses, microscopes, microphones -- it is a long
list of instruments that either increase the sensitivity or the range of the
"five senses". These efforts have led to increasingly sophisticated
instruments for particular applications. In turn, these efforts have
contributed to a theoretical understanding of the information these
instruments are "telling" us -- even when this might be a voltage on an
instrument (which is already an extension of a sophisticated set of
components), or a mark on a photographic film.
So how we can "see" subatomic particles is not isolated, but rather is a
complex extension of our observations of "Nature".
Click here to return to the Physics Archives
Update: June 2012