This is “Electronic Structure”, chapter 8 from the book Beginning Chemistry (v. 1.0).
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Normal light microscopes can magnify objects up to about 1,500 times. Electron microscopes can magnify objects up to 1,000,000 times. Why can electron microscopes magnify images so much?
A microscope’s resolution depends on the wavelength of light used. The smaller the wavelength, the more a microscope can magnify. Light is a wave, and, as such, it has a wavelength associated with it. The wavelength of visible light, which is detected by the eyes, varies from about 700 nm to about 400 nm.
One of the startling conclusions about modern science is that electrons also act as waves. However, the wavelength of electrons is much, much shorter—about 0.5 to 1 nm. This allows electron microscopes to magnify 600–700 times more than light microscopes. This allows us to see even smaller features in a world that is invisible to the naked eye.
(a) A simple light microscope can magnify up to 1,500 times. (b) An electron microscope can magnify up to 1,000,000 times. (c) Flu viruses imaged by an electron microscope. The virus is about 100 nm in diameter.
Atoms act the way they do because of their structure. We already know that atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons and neutrons are located in the nucleus, and electrons orbit around the nucleus. But we need to know the structural details to understand why atoms react the way they do.
Virtually everything we know about atoms ultimately comes from light. Before we can understand the composition of atoms (especially electrons), we need to understand the properties of light.