Have you ever seen how an atom looks? Although under a microscope these ordinary matter building blocks are a million times smaller than a strand of hair rendering them difficult to see. Before that David Nadlinger, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford, recently won first prize in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) scientific photography competition for his pioneering picture of an atom.
Nadlinger’s photograph, titled Single Atom in an Ion Trap, depicts a single positively-charged strontium atom trapped between two metal electrodes in an electric field. The two-needle tips it dances in are just two millimeters apart for scale. This small dot of light is visible thanks to a close-up crop of the pixel, which is an extremely unusual way to see this tiny particle.
How did Nadlinger manage to capture the atom on film? The particle emitting light is what we’re staring at. A laser with a particular red-violet hue was used to first light the molecule. It absorbs and then releases the light allowing a long exposure to be captured with a regular camera. The ion trap is housed in an ultra-high vacuum chamber and the shot we’re looking at was taken from it.
“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 minuscule quantum world and our macroscopic reality,” says Nadlinger. His picture has encouraged him to share his everyday experiments with the rest of the world igniting popular interest in physics in a novel and exciting way.
Over 100 images were submitted by researchers who won EPSRC funding, and the winning image was chosen from among them. The contest is in its fifth year, with a diverse range of photographs demonstrating the diversity of scientific science. Professor Tom Rodden, Deputy Chief Executive of the EPSRC, said of judging the award, “Every year we are stunned by the quality and creativity of the entries into our competition and this year has been no exception,” “They show that our researchers want to tell the world about the beauty of science and engineering.”
Other winning photographs from the EPSRC science photography competition are seen below.
“In a kitchen far far away…” Eureka and Discovery took first and second positions, respectively. In a kitchen sink the fluid turbulence patterns on top of a spherical soap bubble. The two halves of the image depict two very distinct physical processes that have been observed in the study of how foams shape and act in lubricants and beverages. The typical behavior of gravitational fluid drainage flow is shown on the right-hand side with the colors indicating bubble thickness. The holes on the left-hand side show a kind of quasi-elastic instability that exists on the sub-micron length scale. (Image courtesy of Imperial College London’s Li Shen)
Second position Eureka and Discovery: Biodegradable micro bowls could help combat stubborn cancers. Bowl-shaped microparticles such as the one shown can steal the show in a world dominated by spheres. Often tumors unlike healthy tissues lack an extensive network of blood vessels. This makes anti-tumor medications impossible to penetrate further into the tumor reducing their potency. If bowl-shaped particles are infused with the medication and ultrasound is used the drug will be able to reach further into the tumor. (University of Oxford photo by Tayo Sanders II)
3rd position Innovation ‘Building blocks for a lighter future’ Selective laser melting, a form of additive manufacturing or 3D printing was used to create a variety of lattice structures. These aluminum systems are very strong and stiff allowing engineers to minimize product weight dramatically. In the aerospace and transportation industries weight is a key aspect that directly affects fuel economy and travel’s environmental effects. (University of Nottingham photo by Sam Catchpole-Smith)
Second place ‘High throughput screening in search for serendipity’ the ability to see outside the box. Hundreds of polymers are screened using high throughput scanning to see how their material properties affect the ability of human mesenchymal stem cells to differentiate into bone cells. The ability of cells to bind to materials is a crucial step in developing new biomaterials for stem cell development. On different polymer sheets, the attached cells have different morphologies indicating their different bio-compatibilities. (Photo courtesy of University of Nottingham’s Dr. Mahetab Amer)