Student's photo of a single atom wins EPSRC competition

Tuesday 13 February

Single Atom in Ion Trap (photo: David Nadlinger)

Postgraduate student David Nadlinger has won the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) national science photography competition for his photo of a single atom in an ion trap.

In the centre of the picture, a small bright dot is visible: a single positively-charged strontium atom, which is held nearly motionless by electric fields emanating from the metal electrodes surrounding it. (The distance between the small needle tips is about two millimetres.) When illuminated by a laser of the right blue-violet colour, the atom absorbs and re-emits light particles sufficiently quickly for an ordinary camera to capture it in a long exposure photograph. The picture was taken through a window of the ultra-high vacuum chamber that houses the trap. 

Single Atom in Ion Trap - detail (photo: David Nadlinger)

David explained: ‘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.’ He took the photo on a Canon 5D Mk II, EF 50mm f/1.8 with extension tubes, and two flash units with colour gels.

David took the photo at Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory where, as a DPhil candidate in Atomic and Laser Physics, he is conducting research in ion trap quantum computing. Laser-cooled atomic ions provide a pristine platform for exploring and harnessing the properties of quantum physics and are used as building blocks for future quantum computers, which have the potential to dwarf the processing power of today’s computers by being able to process huge amounts of information all at once.

David won first place in the Equipment and Facilities category as well as being overall winner of the competition, which received over 100 entries from researchers in receipt of EPSRC funding.