The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council awarded a remarkable photograph its overall prize in science photography. The subject of the photograph? A single atom visible to the naked eye. Well, perhaps not exactly the naked eye, but without a microscope. In the picture above (click here to enlarge), the atom is that pale blue dot between the two needle-like structures.
You probably learned in school that you couldn’t see a single atom, and that’s usually true. But [David Nadlinger] from the University of Oxford, trapped a positively charged strontium atom in an ion trap and then irradiated it with a blue-violet laser. The atom absorbs and reemits the light, and a camera can pick up the light, creating a one-of-a-kind photograph. The camera was a Canon 5D Mk II with a 50mm f/1.8 lens — a nice camera, but nothing too exotic.
The ion trap keeps the single atom balanced between two small needle points about 2 millimeters apart. [Nadlinger] did some math that convinced him the photograph could be possible and made it a reality on a Sunday afternoon. The pale dot isn’t especially spectacular by itself, but when you realize that it is the visual effect of a single atom, it is mind-blowing. Turns out, the lab has taken some similar photographs in the past. They don’t remember who took it, but they have a picture of 9 calcium-43 ions trapped, that you can seen below. The ions are 10 microns apart and at an effective temperature of 0.001 degrees Kelvin.
Other winning photographs included patterns on a soap bubble, an EEG headset in use, and microbubbles used to deliver drugs. There’s also an underwater robot, a machine for molecular beam epitaxy that looks like a James Bond villain’s torture device, and lattices made with selective laser melting 3D printing.
If you want to look at atoms from the comfort of your own home, maybe you should build an STM. You might even try NIST’s improved atom probe while you are at it. Just remember you can’t trust atoms. They make up everything.
Photo credit: David Nadlinger