Photo First: Light Captured as Both Particle and Wave

A cutting-edge electron microscope takes a historic snapshot.

It's one of those enduring Zen koans of science that we've all grown up with: Light behaves as both a particle and a wave-at the same time. Einstein taught us that, so we're all generally on board, but to actually understand what it means would require several Ph.D.s and a thorough understanding of quantum physics.

What's more, scientists have never been able to devise an experiment that documents light behaving as both a wave and a particle simultaneously. Until now.

Why Should We Care About Quantum Computing?

That's the contention of a team of Swiss and American researchers, who say they've succeeded in capturing the first-ever snapshot of light's dual behavior. Using an advanced electron microscope – one of only two on the planet – at the EPFL labs in Switzerland, the team has generated a kind of quantum photograph of light behaving as both a particle and a wave.

The experiment involves firing laser light at a microscopic metallic nanowire, causing light to travel - as a wave - back and forth along the wire. When waves traveling in opposite directions meet, they form a "standing wave" that emits light itself - as particles. By shooting a stream of electrons close to the nanowire, the researchers were able to capture an image that simultaneously demonstrates both the wave-nature and particle-nature of light.

Extraordinary Beauty Of The NanoArt World: Photos

"This experiment demonstrates that, for the first time ever, we can film quantum mechanics - and its paradoxical nature - directly," says lead researcher Fabrizio Carbone of EPFL, on the lab's project page. The study is to be officially published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

The image provided is shown above, issued with the following caption from EPFL: "Energy-space photography of light confined on a nanowire, simultaneously showing both spatial interference and energy quantization." If you find it all a little hard to unpack - believe me, I'm entirely sympathetic - the team has also released this rather friendly companion video:

click to play video

The bottom "slice" of the image shows the particles, while the top image shows light as a wave.

NanoArt is a glimpse into an unbelievably tiny world that only a small number of scientists have viewed. For the average person, the realm of nanotechnology -- that is, structures smaller than a billionth of a meter -- is as remote and inaccessible as the moon. But nanoartist Cris Orfrescu wanted to change that. He created the NanoArt Exhibition to share the beauty of the nano-world with those of us living in the macro-world. Using electron microscopes, scientists capture images of nano-sized landscapes and then colorize them with digital photography software in order to create pieces of art. The following images are winners from the 2011 competition. Although you may be interested in learning what the image is, Orfrescu wants the public to see the nano-world independent of its source, for just its simple beauty. So with that in mind, we'll give you information about the artist and his or her inspiration, when known.

Plasticity in Steel Micro-pillars Siddhardtha Pathak was born in India and studied Metallurgical Engineering. He has a PhD in Materials Science and focuses on steel in his work. He currently works at the California Institute of Technology. As an artist, he's been featured all over the world. His inspiration comes from testing mechanical forces at the submicron scales. His images of steel used in space applications won him first place.

Wreck Elena Lucia Constantinescu is a scientist in cellular biology. After many years of working with her microscope in the lab, she wanted to share the world she saw. She said, "I was astonished by the countless possibilities offered by digital technology to turn the photos into artistic images. And I started to draw." Her colorized image of cellular biology won her second place.

Xura Bjorn Dampfling grew up in Northern Germany and has been an artist for the last 10 years. Dampfling likes to use pieces that speak to his artistic sentiments. In this example, he develops "wood into a piece of art, not by hiding its given structures, but by enhancing, twisting, coloring and using dozens of plates... (and) painting digitally into the images." His image Xura came in third place.

Fissure I Artist Carol Flaitz is married to an IBM electron microscopist and was awed by images he would bring home. She began to paint the pieces large scale using various materials in combination with the images to create texture. She says that her work is a reflection of her own marriage, where art and technology unite. Fissure I came in fourth place.

Birth of the World Daniela Caceta works on computer-generated artwork in Brazil. When using an electron microscope, she encounters interesting features such as formation, growth, development and mostly, the morphology of nanostructures. She talks of her works as an extension of the ancient Greek manipulation of dyes and pottery. She said they "were unaware of the size of the particles with which they were dealing, (but) they created colorful pottery glazes by manipulating nano-sized particles." Birth of the World came in fifth.

Spirals Rorivaldo Camargo was born in San Carlos and has spent eight years in electron microscopy. Five years ago, he began working with NanoArt and has magnified items up to a million times before colorizing them and displaying them around the world. Spirals won him sixth place.

Alumina Nanohairs Simona Barison graduated as a researcher of material science and is working on the synthesis and characterization of materials. She also focuses on advanced components for fuel cells and cooling devices in the Department of Energy and Transport. These beta-alumina nanohairs are seen under an electron microscope and came about through a physical reaction. Alumina Nanohairs won seventh place.

Quasicrystal Blossoms Teja Krasek has a degree in painting, and her work is focused on symmetry as a linking concept between art and science. She uses computers and traditional painting for colorization. She enjoys a shape's inner relations and incorporates mathematical relationships in her art, including "Fibonacci sequences, inward infinity and perceptual ambiguity." Quasicrystal Blossoms earned her eighth place.

Entanglio, based on quantum entangled particles Jack Mason has been creating his "nanographs" since 2002. As a journalist covering the commercialization of nanotech, he became fascinated with the scientific images that were part of the stories he was reporting. His pieces are developed using layers of atomic or molecular-scale images and structures. Entanglio, based on quantum entangled particles, earned ninth place.

Colorized Bird Nest Joel Kahn has been combining math, geometry and computers to produce artworks. He uses a powerful programming environment called BASIC-256 to artfully represent his images. In this case he used a previous image and altered the colors and details of the original image. The original image (Bird Nest) was provided by Cris Orfescu to those who do not have access to electronic microscopy.