Can we see atoms? You may have learned in school that atoms - the basic building blocks of our Universe - were too small to see. But over the past several decades, advancements in electron microscopy have allowed scientists to resolve the nano-structures of materials, including those found in biological organisms. Unlike regular optical microscopes that use visible light, these powerful microscopes use a high energy beam of electrons to unveil what is invisible to the eye. Some types of electron microscopes, such as the high resolution transmission electron microscope can actually ‘see’ individual atoms!
Microscopy days were my favorite days while in graduate school. Discoveries awaited, even those findings or observations that scientists disregard as failed experiments and never make it into a scientific paper. A typical day would start with a mental rehearsal of the procedures I would need to follow to safely operate the multi million-dollar piece of equipment. That ritual helped me prepare for a mission to go and explore the nano-universe. In my mind, I felt like an explorer going in a submarine to the deepest regions of our oceans, or like an astronaut getting ready to fly to outer space. It was common for me to skip my meals on those days. I would just indulge in a few Snickers or a bag of Cheetos during short breaks.
One winter day, a blizzard was expected to hit Ithaca late in the evening. So after spending long hours at the microscope I decided to call it a day and left the lab to take the bus home. As I was exiting the building I was transported to what felt like another dimension in time and space. It was dark outside. The Cornell campus was desolate, the snowfall was heavy but wondrously quiet. As a Puerto Rican I was used to the noise of the rain hitting hard 'el techo de zinc' (the metal roof) and the hundreds of coquí frogs singing loud in symphony. So one of the things that captivated me the most about the snow was how soundless it really was. At a distance a ghostly figure was approaching. Another student - perhaps the only other soul on campus - was casually skiing in the middle of the road. The student passed me by and I couldn't believe what I had seen. After some waiting, the last bus finally came, saving me from a long walk back home in Arctic-like conditions.
I was entranced by that mystical experience out in the elements. Then it suddenly hit me. Whether it’s the stars burning thousands of light-years away, or the tiniest structures I had just been observing through the microscope that day, everything is made of atoms. My heart was transfixed by science at that moment. The snow, the bus, my clothes, my skin, my neurons… all things were the result of a galactic chemical evolution.
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