Did you know that about five million million hydrogen atoms can fit on the head of a pin? Atoms are that small. You may have thought they were, and always would be, impossible to see.
However, in a big breakthrough, physicists at the University of Oxford captured an image of a single atom of the radioactive metallic element strontium. This amazing image won the top prize in a national science photography competition, organized by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
Physicist David Nadlinger captured the image. The photo shows a single strontium atom being blasted by lasers, which causes it to emit light. The atom is held in place by electric fields emanating from two metal needles on either side of it. The needles are about 2 millimeters (0.08 in.) apart, and the whole setup is contained inside an ultrahigh vacuum chamber that is significantly cooled to keep the atom at rest.
Nadlinger said, “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. 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.”