A scientist captured an impossible photo of a single atom

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The wonderful image, captured by Oxford University physics PhD student David Nadlinger, has won the grand prize in a science photography competition organized by the UK's Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council.

"We are looking for images that will demonstrate research in action", EPSRC described the photo that they want for the competition, which was announced in October past year.

Single atom image
Picture of the Day: An Ion Trap for a single atom

The strontium atom has 38 protons and has a diameter of a a few millionths of a millimeter, an extremely tiny object to see.

One last fun fact: The pale blue dot is a strontium atom, a "soft silver-white yellowish metallic element that is highly reactive chemically", And, as a salt, humans use it to make fireworks bright red. So, the photo is actually of the laser light being re-emitted, rather than the outline of an atom. Once the energized electrons give off enough light, it is now possible for even an ordinary camera to image the atom.


David Nadlinger, who is studying how to trap charged particles for use in quantum computing, has been awarded a national science photography prize for the image, which was taken with an ordinary digital camera. Unless we look closely at that little pale blue dot, suspended in the middle of an ion trap.

A single atom photo was the prize victor of a United Kingdom science photography competition, drawing accolades for the graduate student who captured the sight with an ordinary camera. Without the long exposure effect, the atom wouldn't be visible to the naked eye.


Nadlinger used normal equipment that most photographers use instead of extension tubes, which is a lens accessory increasing the focal length of an existing lens and is reserved for very close-up photography. These atomic ions could play a pivotal role in furthering the research in quantum physics.

"Every year we are stunned by the quality and creativity of the entries into our competition and this year has been no exception", said EPSRCs Deputy Chief Executive Tom Rodden.


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