Zoom in close on the center of the picture above, and you can spot something you perhaps never thought you would be able to see: a single atom. Right in the center, that tiny dot. The image won first prize in a science photo contest conducted by UK based Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
Quantum physicist David Nadlinger from the University of Oxford managed to capture an image that would have been impossible only a few years ago: a single atom suspended in an electric field visible to the naked eye. The single strontium atom is illuminated by a laser while suspended in the air by two electrodes. For a sense of scale, those two electrodes on each side of the tiny dot are only two millimeters apart.
“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,” Nadlinger says. “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.”
To be clear, the photo doesn’t capture just the atom, but rather light emitted from it while in an excited state. From the EPSRC:
“Single Atom in an Ion Trap”, by David Nadlinger, from the University of Oxford, shows the atom held by the fields emanating from the metal electrodes surrounding it. The distance between the small needle tips is about two millimetres.
When illuminated by a laser of the right blue-violet colour the atom absorbs and re-emits light particles sufficiently quickly for an ordinary camera to capture it in a long exposure photograph. The winning picture was taken through a window of the ultra-high vacuum chamber that houses the ion trap.
Laser-cooled atomic ions provide a pristine platform for exploring and harnessing the unique properties of quantum physics. They can serve as extremely accurate clocks and sensors or, as explored by the UK Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub, as building blocks for future quantum computers, which could tackle problems that stymie even today’s largest supercomputers.
Judges selected the photo from more than 100 entries that receive EPSRC funding—the EPSRC is the main funder of physical science research in the United Kingdom. Here are some more of this year’s spectacular images you need to see from the EPSRC annual science photography competition.