Electron microscopes have made it possible to see deeper into the fabric of matter than ever before, and they've only been getting better. But we might not be able to zoom in any further because the zoom lenses are making it impossible to see.
In 2008, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, developed the Transmission Electron Aberration-Corrected Microscope, with a record-breaking resolution of just 0.05 nanometres. But when the researchers tried to put together a second version with a kit of new lenses designed to weed out some of the blurriness caused by variations in electron energy, things actually got worse instead of better.
It took years to figure out exactly why this was, but it turns out the issues are caused by the very parts of the 'scope designed to filter out distortion. Tubes of nickel-iron alloy, copper and stainless steel used to hold and position corrective lenses actual generate distortion. They always have, but it was never noticeable -- or troublesome -- until we hit such a ludicrously high resolution. And you can always try to filter out that noise, but the further you zoom in, the bigger the problem gets.
Existing .05-nanometre microscopes are still damned impressive, and powerful enough to be doing all kinds of crazy and important science. But until we figure out how to completely get rid of the parts that are both solving and fixing things, it doesn't look like we can get much closer. [Nature]