You’re looking at the first-ever picture of a hydrogen atom. Or really, it’s an image of the electron orbital “cloudy-woudy, quantumy-wantumy” … stuff. It’s not a real image, like we’re used to seeing, of course. Atoms are smaller than the wavelength of light, and you can’t see anything smaller than the wavelength of light, by definition.
Here’s what you’re looking at: First of all, electrons don’t exist as the cartoonish orbiting particle-planets like we see on the Springfield Isotopes logo:
Instead, they exist as a probability cloud, behaving like both waves and particles. Check out this delightfully old-school MinutePhysics video to see what I mean:
If you know about things like of quantum mechanical principles like the Schrödinger equation, the Pauli Exclusion Principle and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, you know that directly observing an electron, with all of its wavy-particley dualness, is next to impossible. Instead, we describe the identity and “location” of an electron as a probability. In other words, within a certain cloud-like region around a nucleus, an electron has a certain probability of being any which where at any time. Only, if you try to directly observe it, you’re never able to nail down precisely where it is. It’s complicated, I know.
Thanks to newly-developed photoionization microscopy, though, those wave patterns can now be detected! German and Dutch physicists applied laser pulses to hydrogen atoms hanging in an electric field. This excited the hydrogen’s lone electron into various ring-like energy states, and then some of them were flung out to a detector. After observing lots and lots of these, and adding and subtracting all the interfering waves, they were able to reconstruct the probability cloud pattern for every place (and time) that a hydrogen’s electron can be.
If you like that, then you should definitely check out the world’s smallest movie, drawn with individual atoms by IBM. Wave patterns galore!! If you’d like to dig deeper into the physics of this hydrogen atom observation, head over to PhysicsWorld.