Ph.D Candidate Captures Image of a Single Atom

“David Nadlinger, who traps atoms for his quantum computing research at the University of Oxford, captured this image on August 7 using a standard DSLR camera.”

The image is of a positively charged atom suspended in an ion trap. Nadlinger took this long exposure photograph that not only grasped the world’s attention. It also earned the Ph.D candidate a National Science Photography prize by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

“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,” Nadlinger said in a press release.

People are wondering as to how Nadlinger was able to achieve capturing such an image. Nadlinger took the photo by peering through a window of the ion trap’s ultra-high vacuum chamber. He used a 50milimeter lens, extension tubes, and two flash units outfitted with color gels as well.

Nadlinger was able to capture an infinitely small atom. However, “At 38 protons and 215 billionths of a millimeter across, strontium atoms are relatively large by comparison.” Making it slightly less difficult to see the atom. But to put it into perspective, “Each atom is roughly 0.25 nanometers (or billionths of a meter) across; billions of the atoms would fit comfortably inside a single red blood cell.”

Yet we are not seeing the actual outline of an atom. The only reason we are able to see the atom is because it absorbed, then re-emitted laser light at a speed capturable by a long camera exposure. So what we are actually seeing is a reflection of laser light. Without the long exposure feature of the camera, the atom would not be visible to the naked eye.