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There are plenty of examples of people doubting ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5]) or denying ([6], [7], [8]) the existence of atoms.

Is there any compelling evidence for the existence of atoms? Has anyone ever actually seen one? Are there any pictures of atoms?

I am skeptical that atoms are anything more than a useful mathematical model.

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The atomic theory of matter is one of the best validated ideas in modern science but the ability to "see" atoms is not what convinced people it was a good hypothesis (and seeing atoms is very recent technology). That worked was the way the atomic theory explained things such as many observations in chemistry such as the ideal gas law and the nature of chemical reactions. –  matt_black Feb 2 '12 at 22:21
I think the "existence" in case of physical (and other) non obvious phenomenons is not a well defined term and the question is not answerable. Does thought exist? Does light exist? Do gamma rays exist? Do muons exist? Does anti-matter exist? There is plenty of concepts which are useful and most people would agree they "exist", but their existance is not something one could "see". –  Suma Feb 3 '12 at 12:27
We have addressed questions skeptical of many other obvious matters. The fact that it's basic physics is not a good reason for closure. See also questions on memory of water, age of the universe and moon trips. –  Sklivvz Feb 4 '12 at 0:36
This question has been through significant revision, and has been gathering close votes along the way, even though I personally think it has become a good question now. I assume the reason is people don't think anyone disbelieves in atoms. I have added some links (credit to Sklivvz for finding them) to overcome this. If there is another reason for the close votes, please comment. –  Oddthinking Feb 4 '12 at 1:43
I'm surprised that some people really doubt the existence of atoms. Reminds me on the one person which told me that it can't be true that all things are made from atoms, because you can make bombs out of them and therefore everything would then be explosive ... –  Martin Scharrer Feb 23 '12 at 15:39
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4 Answers

up vote 149 down vote accepted

Atoms are too small to see with microscopes that rely on light (also due to problems such as the Abbe diffraction limit). Essentially, with a conventional microscope you cannot distinguish points that are too close.

Even the recently introduced superresolution microscopes, which can surpass this limit, are still not able to image single atoms (they can, however distinguish single molecules, with a distance of <20nm).

This is mostly due to the fact that these microscopes rely on light, which has a wavelenght that is too long to "catch atoms" (pardon the non-scientific wording of this sentence).

However, several other techniques exist that allow us to "see" atoms. I would like to stress that the very nature of atoms prevents us to actually have a photo of them like we take a photo of a macroscopic object.

Various techniques exist:

High resolution electron microscopy (HRTEM), which uses the phase-shift of a wave of electrons thrown at the sample.

This is an example of an indium nanoparticle imaged with HRTEM:

Indium nanoparticle imaged with HRTEM (From: http://www.pinna.info/nano/research-new.html )

These are HRTEM images of a superconductor:

superconductor HRTEM (From: http://www.nims.go.jp/AEMG/recent/recent-nagai/nagai-e/nagai-Co/nagai-Co.html )

Another technique is X-ray crystallography. I am not going to explain the mathematics and physics beyond it, as they are quite complex but essentially you take a crystal of the molecule you like, shine an X-ray beam on it and look at how the X-rays are scattered by the atoms in the crystal.

The diffraction pattern does not per se show the single atoms, but mathematical analysis of the diffraction spots allows for reconstruction of an electron density map and subsequently of the structure of the molecule.

Probably one of the most famous X-ray diffraction patterns is Photo 51 made by Rosalind Franklin of DNA, which was then used by the Nobel prize winners James D. Watson and Francis Crick.

Photo 51 - X-ray diffraction of DNA

See also some published papers at this regard.

Finally another technique is the Atomic force microscope. The principle is to have a very small cantilever that can pass over the sample and gets pushed up and down due to interaction with the electron fields of atoms. An enhanced version of AFM was developed in 2009, which allows to see atoms and bonds in a molecule.

The Chemical Structure of a Molecule Resolved by Atomic Force Microscopy - Gross et al. - Science 2009

SFM of a pentacene molecule

Pentacene molecule. Top: ball and stick model, middle: classical SFM, bottom: enhanced SFM. Scale bar 5 angstrom.

Update: Scientests have now taken a photograph of a single ytterbium atom, showing the shadow created by a laser hitting it.

Ytterbium Atom

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As a humble offering in addition to this fantastic answer, may I mention the Geiger-Marsden experiment. –  DJClayworth Feb 2 '12 at 17:01
@DJClayworth: good addition. There are actually plenty of other methods that indirectly give us "photos" of atoms. For instance NMR or RAMAN spectroscopy, although probably SFM is the most "convincing" one from a visual and conceptual point of view. –  nico Feb 2 '12 at 17:15
Beautiful answer! –  Rotemmiz Feb 2 '12 at 20:56
+1 especially for the Rosalind Franklin reference. –  sarnold Feb 2 '12 at 22:58
I created an account just to upvote this post :P –  wim Feb 3 '12 at 0:50
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No discussion of atoms would be complete without mentioning Brownian motion.

Brownian motion is the strange, seemingly random movement of small particles (like dust) when suspended in a fluid. This phenomenon went unexplained for almost 80 years, until Einstein published a paper in 1905 (the same year he published his paper on the special theory of relativity) showing that, if we assume atoms exist and that Brownian motion is due to atoms bombarding the particle, the movement will behave in a very particular way. He even gave equations for estimating the size of the atoms!

At first the paper was ignored, as it didn't agree with the observed particle movement; however, it turns out earlier experiments were flawed, and through a series of very careful experiments in 1908-09, Jean Perrin verified that the particles did indeed move in exactly the way Einstein predicted. For this work, Jean Perrin won the Nobel Prize.

This is usually considered the turning point of atomic theory - before this work, the scientific world was divided about the existence of atoms, but after this their existence became very hard to deny.

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A very interesting blog post about Perrin points out that he demonstrated the behavior of soap films only makes sense if molecules exist. Key phrase "Similarly, Perrin demonstrated that the difference in soap film thicknesses was always an integer multiple of the size of the soap molecule. " skullsinthestars.com/2012/05/16/… (emphasis my own) –  JayC May 23 '12 at 23:28
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Yes atoms undoubtedly exist.

I also had the doubt a few years back - are they real-real or just abstractions? - until the following, interesting and very convincing peer-reviewed literature on the topic came out!

D.M. Eigler, E.K. Schweizer. Positioning single atoms with a scanning tunneling microscope. Nature 344, 524-526 (1990).

Here we report the use of the STM at low temperatures (4 K) to position individual xenon atoms on a single-crystal nickel surface with atomic precision. This capacity has allowed us to fabricate rudimentary structures of our own design, atom by atom. The processes we describe are in principle applicable to molecules also. In view of the device-like characteristics reported for single atoms on surfaces, the possibilities for perhaps the ultimate in device miniaturization are evident.

The following image is given. Yes, it's a digital image because that's how scanning-tunnelling microscopes work. All the data represented is real (just like a digital picture).

Atoms writing IBM

After the landmark IBM paper of 1990 many other groups have reproduced the results. IBM Research maintains a whole site dedicated to STM pictures here:


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If this is a picture of atoms, what are they resting "on", and why do they appear conical in shape? –  user1359 Feb 3 '12 at 18:13
It's a picture representing the em field experienced by a needle as it scans through a grid. The lumps correspond to the atoms, –  Sklivvz Feb 3 '12 at 20:15
@user1359: To imagine how it works, look at here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Displacement_mapping, we have similar concept in 3D graphics in which you transform 2D B/W image into 3D shape. –  nima Feb 3 '12 at 21:31
So 1990 till 2012 is just a few years for you? ;-) –  Sonny Ordell Feb 4 '12 at 21:13
@SonnyOrdell: I'm old, mate. –  Sklivvz Feb 4 '12 at 22:20
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Would an actual picture of a single captured atom convince you?

enter image description here

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