And THIS… is an Atom!

A meme attempting to put into perspective the atom's tiny size in David Nadlinger's prize-winning photograph. A slideshow of closer and closer view entice you to look closer. The captions are: "Look Closer", "Closer", "Right There!" Meme: NaturPhilosophie‘Single Atom in an Ion Trap’

Scientists accomplish the impossible.  This time, a quantum physicist has only managed to capture the photographic image of an atom with a conventional camera.  And THIS is the photograph….. 

‘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 only about two millimetres.


A Small Pale Blue Dot

The image won first prize in a science photo contest conducted by the UK-based Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

An annotated close-up of David Nadlinger's prize-winning photograph to indicate where exactly to find the atom. Annotations: NaturPhilosophie
Getting up close and personal with the atom… Annotated Photograph from the Original by David Nadlinger 2018

Nadlinger explained how the photograph came about:

“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.  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 EPSRC explains how a single atom is somehow visible to a normal camera:

“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.”

David Nadlinger's prize-winning photograph of a single atom, pictured with a conventional camera.
The original 2018 prize-winning photograph taken by David Nadlinger.

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, they can be the building blocks of future quantum computers, which could tackle problems that stump even the largest supercomputers built now.

Other than using extension tubes, a lens accessory that increases the focal length of an existing lens and is typically reserved for extreme close-up photography, Nadlinger used mainstream photographic equipment.

Even without a complicated experimental set-up, his patience and attention to detail paid off.