One of the strangest things about the gorgeous photo of an atom that has just won a British science photography prize is that you cannot take a photo of an atom. It is just impossible.
And yet, there it is, a strontium atom, like a little round dot, shining clear as day. The image is called “Single Atom in an Ion Trap.”
“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,” University of Oxford physicist David Nadlinger told the U.K.’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which awards the prize.
Nadlinger, a DPhil student, came up with the idea through his work on quantum computing.
“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,” he said.
The result, obtained last August, is an image. But it is not a photo. The difference is in how the picture gets made.
The wavelength of visible light varies, from the shortest violet to the longest red, but is about 500 nanometres, give or take.
The average atom is hundreds, even thousands of times smaller than that.
The upshot is that you cannot bounce light off an atom, in the way you can bounce light off a person or a cat to capture their image.
Single Atom in an Ion Trap.
Nadlinger’s image shows a single atom of strontium, positively charged, held in place in a vacuum by the electromagnetic field produced by two metal electrodes a mere two millimetres apart.
This device is called an ion trap, and it is a key part of research into the development of …read more
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