If you know a bit about quantum physics, you’ve likely heard of the Schrödinger’s Cat concept used to explain superpositions: a cat in a box with a poison flask is at once alive and dead until you look inside. Researchers have produced this oddball state in the lab before, but they’re now using it to create the most detailed X-ray movies of molecules they’ve seen so far. A team at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory first blasted an iodine molecule with an optical laser, splitting the molecule into simultaneous excited and relaxed states. When the scientists hit the molecule with X-rays afterward, the light scattering off of both states created an X-ray hologram showing the excited state. After that, the SLAC group only had to capture enough of these holograms to create a movie.
And when we say detailed, we mean it. The footage captured the molecular activity down to a resolution of 0.3 angstrom (less than the width of an atom) at timescales so small (a few trillionths of a second) that you can watch the atoms build up to a frenzy and eventually relax. You see direct evidence of the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox, too — the atomic bonds in the molecule at once break and stay together.
The technique could be used to image other molecular systems, which could help make sense of biological functions ranging from photosynthesis to vision. That, in turn, could help the scientific world harness molecular-level behavior and apply it in fields like energy and medicine. This is just a first step, but it’s an important one.