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Stunning photo of a single atom wins prestigious science photography contest

A photograph of a single glowing atom of strontium suspended in electric fields has been awarded the top prize in a prestigious science photography content.

The photo, titled “Single Atom In An Ion Tap”, was taken by David Nadlinger at Oxford University’s Clarendon Laboratory.

Nadlinger outdid hundreds of others to be crowned the winner at the annual photography competition run by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

He captured the image using the long exposure setting on a standard digital camera, which he pointed into a vacuum chamber through a window.

It’s pretty hard to see the atom in the uncropped photo, so we’ll help you out by zooming in:

Monday February 12, 2018. This remarkable picture, taken at the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University, and showing a single glowing atom of strontium, is the Overall Winner in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's annual photography competition. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday February 12, 2018. The atom is cooled by a laser inside a ultra-high vacuum chamber and the work provide a pristine platform for exploring and harnessing the unique properties of quantum physics. See PA story SCIENCE Photography. David Nadlinger / University of Oxford / EPSRC /PA Wire

That tiny speck in the middle is a single atom of strontium.

And just to be absolutely sure you can see it, especially if you’re on mobile, here’s an even closer look:

Monday February 12, 2018.  This remarkable picture, taken at the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University, and showing a single glowing atom of strontium, is the Overall Winner in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's annual photography competition. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday February 12, 2018. The atom is cooled by a laser inside a ultra-high vacuum chamber and the work provide a pristine platform for exploring and harnessing the unique properties of quantum physics. See PA story SCIENCE Photography. David Nadlinger / University of Oxford / EPSRC /PA Wire

“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 minuscule quantum world and our macroscopic reality,” Nadlinger said.

“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.”

Inside the vacuum chamber, the strontium (an alkaline earth metal) is suspended in mid-air thanks to two metal electrodes set just two millimetres apart.

Yep, that small gap you see in the photo is just two millimetres. But if you’re thinking the atom looks tiny, you’re probably underestimating how small it really is.

The thing is, atoms are so microscopically small that there’s no chance we’d spot one suspended in mid-air without a little help.

Here’s how the EPSRC explains the method Nadlinger used to photograph the strontium inside the vacuum chamber:

“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.”

Neat!

About the author

Andrew is Techly’s Assistant Editor. He keeps tomato sauce in the fridge and has a crippling fear of cardboard boxes.

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