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Picture of a Single Atom Wins Prestigious Science Photo Contest



If you’ve ever wondered what an atom looks like, here is your chance to find out. In the photo below, a single atom is trapped by electric fields.

The dynamic image was recently awarded the top prize in a well-known science photography competition.

The image, titled “Single Atom in an Ion Trap” was captured by David Nadlinger of the University of Oxford. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which organized the competition, announced the winner on Monday. 

Credit: David Nadlinger

The prized photograph shows an atom as a speck of light. The metal electrodes it was placed between are approximately 2 mm (0.078 inches) apart and hold it nearly motionless. When a laser of the right blue-violet color illuminates the atom, it absorbs and re-emits the light particles.

Using long-exposure photography, the happening can be caught on film.

The caption reads:

“This picture was taken through a window of the ultra-high vacuum chamber that houses the trap. Laser-cooled atomic ions provide a pristine platform for exploring and harnessing the unique properties of quantum physics. They are used to construct extremely accurate clocks or, as in this research, as building blocks for future quantum computers, which could tackle problems that stymie even today’s largest supercomputers.”

Credit: David Nadlinger

Nadlinger told EPSRC that he found the idea of seeing a single atom with the naked eye to be “wonderfully direct” and “a visceral bridge between the minuscule quantum world and our macroscopic reality.” He continued,

“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.”

 The competition’s other categories include Eureka & Discovery, Equipment & Facilities, People & Skills, Innovation, and Weird & Wonderful. To capture the award-winning photograph, Nadlinger used a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR, a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens, two flash units and extension tubes. 

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