Astonishing Image of a Single Atom Wins Student UK Photo Prize

Wednesday, 14 February 2018 - 11:43AM
Science Art
Physics
Wednesday, 14 February 2018 - 11:43AM
Astonishing Image of a Single Atom Wins Student UK Photo Prize
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Image credit: DAVID NADLINGER/EPSRC

The invisible world of electrons, protons, and neutrons is frustratingly difficult to grasp—most of us probably stopped thinking about it after high school physics. Throw in claims that electrons don't have fixed positions, that light and matter can act like waves and particles, and the knowledge that these teeny, tiny pieces of matter can create a city-destroying atomic bomb, and atoms seem even more incomprehensible.


When you're a scientist working with atomic physics, that's a problem. Fortunately, Oxford University student David Nadlinger has found a way to make atoms a little more tangible: he took a photo of one.


Nadlinger won the U.K.'s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's photo contest with this picture of a single atom suspended between two beams.

 

If you look closely, you can see a single white dot between the two needles. This is the light given off by a single excited atom.



According to Nadlinger, "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. 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."


It's probably not a coincidence that Nadlinger uses the term "pale blue dot," the same term NASA used in its famous image of Earth taken from a distance of 6 billion kilometers by the Voyager 1 spacecraft.


The implication is that though something is incredibly small, it can still have incredible significance: in Nadlinger's work, ions like the one in the picture may become the building blocks of quantum computing, the next big leap in human technology, while the tiny speck in NASA's photo represents the entirety of life on Earth.


You can see more amazing photographs from the contest here.

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