A single atom can measure tiny forces in units called zeptonewtons | Science News

Support Science Journalism

Science News is a nonprofit.

Support us by subscribing now.


Say What?

A single atom can gauge teensy electromagnetic forces

The unit of measure, a zeptonewton, is equal to one billionth of a trillionth of a newton

By
2:00pm, March 23, 2018
illustration of a laser hitting a charged atom

FEEBLE FORCE  Scientists detected a tiny force using a charged atom (illustrated as a red sphere), which moved (orange) when pelted with laser light (purple). A lens focused light emitted from the atom into a moving image (black arrow).

Zeptonewton
\ZEP-toe-new-ton\ n.

A unit of force equal to one billionth of a trillionth of a newton.

An itty-bitty object can be used to suss out teeny-weeny forces.

Scientists used an atom of the element ytterbium to sense an electromagnetic force smaller than 100 zeptonewtons, researchers report online March 23 in Science Advances. That’s less than 0.0000000000000000001 newtons — with, count ‘em, 18 zeroes after the decimal. At about the same strength as the gravitational pull between a person in Dallas and another in Washington, D.C., that’s downright feeble.

After removing one of the atom’s electrons, researchers trapped the atom using electric fields and cooled it to less than a thousandth of a degree above absolute zero (–273.15° Celsius) by hitting it with laser light. That light, counterintuitively, can cause an

This article is only available to Science News subscribers. Already a subscriber? Log in now.
Or subscribe today for full access.

Get Science News headlines by e-mail.

More from Science News

From the Nature Index Paid Content