SEED Science

Can atoms be seen under a microscope ?

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version
Can atoms be seen under a microscope ?

Can atoms be seen under a microscope ?


The human eye can distinguish objects down to approximately – about the width of a hair. Conventional optical microscopes are limited by the physics of light to about 1000x magnification, which means that they can resolve objects as small as 0.2 micrometers. A micrometer is 10-6 (one millionth part) of a meter.

Atoms are about 10-10 meters – about 2,000 times smaller than can be seen by an optical microscope.

Electron Microscopes (EM’s) do not "see" in the optical sense; they use a focused beam of electrons to provide information about the structure and composition of materials. One type of EM is the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), developed in 1981. This can image items as small as atoms and is key to a growing branch of science called Nanotechnology.

To learn more, try Nanotech Facts from the National Nanotechnology Initiative (A US government research program)