A Sharp, Penetrating Gaze

By Kathy A SvitilMay 1, 2002 5:00 AM


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Physicists' efforts to harness the power of the sun haven't yielded a fusion reactor—but their toils have spawned a nifty new camera. Plasma physicist David Hammer of Cornell University and his colleagues were developing ways to examine microscopic versions of the X-ray sources used to heat hydrogen fuel in fusion experiments. It occurred to them that such compact sources of illumination could also produce exceptionally sharp images, so they plucked a dead fly off the floor and zapped it. The resulting X-ray photo showed fine details of delicate wing hairs. In a follow-up, Hammer took a picture of the parasols of a dandelion seed. His team has also made radiographs of spiders, fruit flies, a beetle, and a live ant. The radiation dose was so slight, it probably caused no harm. The technique could have medical applications as well, Hammer believes: "If there's enough contrast in tissues that have a potentially cancerous growth in them, you could look at a sample and not have to cut it up to find out what's in it."

An innovative X ray shows the intricate insides of a 1/10-inch-long tarnished plant bug.Photograph courtesy of David Hammer/Cornell University

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