The researcher who achieved the impossible task of photographing a tiny atom with a standard camera

The researcher who achieved the impossible task of photographing a tiny atom with a standard camera

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Keeping a suspended atom almost immobile between two electric fields to photograph it is not an easy task.

And doing it in addition with a standard camera seems even more difficult.

But David Nadlinger, a British quantum physicist at the University of Oxford, did it.

That is why he won the first prize in the National Science Photo Contest, organized by the Council of Research in Engineering and Physical Sciences of the United Kingdom (EPSRC).

The photo is titled “A single atom in an ion trap”.

Ion trap

The distance between the two small needles that hold the atom is only two millimeters.

Nadlinger managed to photograph the strontium atom to l illuminate it with a laser .

In this way the atom absorbs light particles and re-emits them fast enough for an ordinary camera to capture it in a long exposure photo.

In the winning photo you see a small blue dot, which is a strontium atom held almost immobile by electric fields. (Photo: David Nadinger)

In the winning photo you see a small blue dot, which is a strontium atom held almost immobile by electric fields. (Photo: David Nadinger)

The idea of being able to see a single atom with the naked eye struck me as a wonderfully direct and visceral bridge between the tiny quantum world and our macroscopic reality “

David Nadlinger, University of Oxford

Atoms are infinitesimally small, although strontium atoms are a little longer in comparison.

The winning image was obtained through a window of a vacuum sealed chamber where an “ion trap” is located.

This “trap” is an ideal platform for researchers to measure, explore and manipulate small particles , and they can understand the behavior of atoms on even the smallest scale.

A bridge

Nadlinger explained how he came up with that photo.

“The idea of being able to see a single atom with the naked eye seemed to me a marvelously direct and visceral bridge between the tiny quantum world and our macroscopic reality ,” the author of the photo said in a statement published by the EPSRC, organizer of the competition.

“A calculation showed that the numbers were on my side and when I arrived at the laboratory with my camera on a Sunday afternoon I was rewarded with the fact that I could take the photo of that little pale blue dot ,” he said.

The contest awarded other images; among them, close-ups of soap bubbles in a kitchen sink and a small bubble containing a medication.

“Not only do we have powerful and attractive photos, but the stories behind those photos about how and why they were made are very inspiring, ” said Dame Ann Dowiling, member of the jury.

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