A university student named David Nadlinger has won the top prize in a science photography contest held by UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council after capturing a photo of a single atom.
The photo, titled “Single Atom in an Ion Trap” shows a single atom suspended in midair. It was captured using a standard DSLR camera and shows the tiniest speck of a positively charged strontium atom. The atom’s place is being held by an electric field created by two metal electrodes. When illuminated with a blue-violet laser, as shown in the photo, the atom absorbed and reemits enough light to make it so an ordinary camera can capture it with a long exposure. For perspective on just how small this entire scene is, the distance between the ion and the electrode tips on either side is about two millimeters.
Nadlinger is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, and he traps atoms for his quantum computing research. He captured the image because “the idea of being able to see a single atom with the naked eye had struck me as a wonderfully direct and visceral bridge between the miniscule quantum world and our macroscopic reality. A back-of-the-envelope calculation showed the numbers to be on my side, and when I set off to the lab with camera and tripods one quiet Sunday afternoon, I was rewarded with this particular picture of a small, pale blue dot.”
Other photographs that took home prizes in individual categories included a robot taking a selfie, a spherical soap bubble that shows fluid instability patterns, and a volunteer wearing an Electroencephalography (EEG) headset to record brain activity.