Have you ever wondered what an atom looks like? These blocks of ordinary matter are a million times smaller than a hair, making them impossible to see, even under a microscope. I mean so far.
David Nadlinger, a doctoral student in the Department of Physics at Oxford University, has just won the grand prize in the scientific photography competition organized by the Council for Engineering and Research in the Physical Sciences (EPSRC) for his revolutionary image of an atom.
Titled “Single Atom in an Ion Trap”, Nadlinger’s photograph shows a single positively charged strontium atom suspended in an electric field between two metal electrodes. To get an idea of the size, the two needle tips are only two millimeters apart.
A very large zoom on the image allows us to see this small point of light and it is an incredibly unique way to see this small particle.
How could Nadlinger photograph the atom?
What we are looking at is, in fact, the particle that emits light. The atom was first illuminated using a laser of a specific red-purple color. Thus, it absorbs and then emits this light, making it possible to capture with an ordinary camera, using a long exposure. The photo we are looking at was taken through a high resolution camera.
“The idea of being able to see a single atom with the naked eye seemed to me a wonderful direct and visceral bridge between the tiny quantum world and our macroscopic reality,” Nadlinger said. His image allowed him to share his daily research with the world, making the audience enthusiastic about physics in a new and unique way.
The winning image was selected from over 100 photos submitted by researchers who received EPSRC funding. It is the fifth year of the competition, with a wide variety of images showing the diversity of scientific research. “Every year we are amazed by the quality and creativity of our participation in the competition and this year was no exception,” said Professor Tom Rodden, Deputy Executive Director of EPSRC, who was on the competition jury. “It shows that our researchers want to tell the world about the beauty of science and engineering.”