Asked by: Jack Catalano, USA

In 2011 a team of physicists in Spain created a perfectly smooth material by coating a thin silicon crystal with a layer of lead a dozen or so atoms thick.

According to the team, quantum forces between the atoms levelled out even atom-sized bumps. The result was a surface known as a quantum-stabilised atom mirror, which will be used in new-generation microscopes.

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Robert is a science writer and visiting professor of science at Aston University.