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Nanomovies: Ultrafast Electron Microscopy

The movies don't have nearly as much interpersonal drama as Avatar, but in these ones the actors are nanoscopic, directed by the laws of physics operating at the nanoscale. They were filmed using a new kind of electron microscopy.

The electron microscope has long been a workhorse for examining all manner of objects and materials at the nanoscale, but usually by producing still images of rigid, unmoving targets. Over the past decade, researchers have developed an ultrafast technique called four-dimensional electron microscopy, which can produce movies of actions taking place over time intervals in the femtosecond range. (A femtosecond is 10^-15 second—a millionth of a billionth of a second.)

Here, for instance, is a movie of a cantilever oscillating, viewed from a variety of angles. The protruding nickel-titanium "diving board" is a mere 50 nanometers wide and was set in motion by a laser pulse. The individual movie frames come at 10 nanosecond intervals so the motion is slowed down by a factor of about 3 million—things happen quickly at the nanoscale.

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