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Scientists Map the Geometry of a Single Electron for the First Time

•, By Becky Ferreira

Scientists have created the first geometric map of a single electron, according to a study published Wednesday in the Physical Review Letters.

The authors, led by University of Basel physicist Dominik Zumbühl, outline a new technique that can shed light on this bizarre subatomic particle and improve human manipulation of electron spin—a key goal for the quantum computing community.

Electrons, which display the properties of both particles and waves, are one of the most otherworldly and slippery forms of matter known to science. It's impossible to image an individual electron simply by zooming in on it with a microscope or camera, so the study's authors instead used a special material called a quantum dot.

Quantum dots are nanocrystals that are too small to be seen with the naked eye. Their unique optical properties have enabled a range of commercial applications, including more colorful LED screens and efficient solar cells. The dots are also useful for physicists because they confine electrons in one locality using electric fields, which simulates the dynamics of a real atom. For this reason, quantum dots are sometimes called artificial atoms.

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