Student Pictures Single Trapped Atom, Wins National Science Photography Prize

A graduate student has captured a photograph of a single atom suspended in an ion trap. The image, taken with an ordinary camera, has won a national science photography prize.

David Nadlinger, who attends the University of Oxford, won the competition organised by the U.K.’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

2_14_Single Atom in Ion Trap

“Single Atom in Ion Trap” by David Nadlinger of the University of Oxford. David Nadlinger/EPSRC

Taken through the window of an ultra-high vacuum chamber, you can see the atom as a pinprick of light between two metal needles. The gap between these needles is less than 0.08 of an inch.

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Metal electrodes produce fields that trap the single atom in place. The atom absorbed and re-emitted blue-violet light from a laser fast enough for Nadlinger to take his breathtaking long-exposure shot.

2_12_Cropped atom image

This cropped version gives a better view of the amazing trapped atom. Look for it between the two needles. David Nadlinger/EPSRC

David Nadlinger said in a statement: “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.”

Nadlinger cages atoms like this for his research. Laser-cooled atomic ions are used to help scientists understand the strange and mysterious world of quantum physics. At present, they produce extremely accurate clocks and sensors. In the future they will be the foundation of super-powerful quantum computers.

He told Gizmodo: “It’s exciting to find a picture that resonates with other people that…

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