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The physicists tool: The accelerator

Physicists can't use light to explore atomic and sub-atomic structures because light's wavelength is too long. However, since ALL particles have wave properties, physicists can use particles as their probes. In order to see the smallest particles, physicists need a particle with the shortest possible wavelength. However, most of the particles around us in the natural world have fairly long wavelengths. How do physicists decrease a particle's wavelength so that it can be used as a probe?

A particle's momentum and its wavelength are inversely related

High-energy physicists apply this principle when they use particle accelerators to increase the momentum of a probing particle, thus decreasing its wavelength.


  • Put your probing particle into an accelerator.

  • Give your particle lots of momentum by speeding it up to very nearly the speed of light.

  • Since the particle now has a lot of momentum, its wavelength is very short.

  • Slam this probing particle into the target and record what happens.