atom photograph
A trapped atom has been captured in an image that has won the UK's top science photography award.David Nadlinger - University of Oxford

An image is currently doing the rounds in the world of physics. It's an image of an atom, a building block of matter, trapped near motionless by electric fields.

If you look closely at the center of the image, you will see a tiny light-emitting pale blue dot. That's the positively-charged strontium atom, which was enough for the photograph to win the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) photography award.

The photograph, titled "Single Atom in an Ion Trap," was captured by David Nadlinger, a graduate student at the University of Oxford. It shows the atom, held by the fields emanating from the metal electrodes surrounding it, as it is illuminated by a blue-violet laser.

When excited by a laser, the atom absorbs and re-emits light particles, making it possible even for an ordinary camera to capture it. However, it is a long exposure shot, which means that the atom is still very faint for naked eyes to pick up without proper equipment even when all the laser light is present.

According to Nadlinger, he took the award-winning photograph through a window into the vacuum chamber of the 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," Nadlinger said in a statement.

These types of laser-cooled atomic ions can help researchers study and harness the unique properties of quantum physics. They can also serve as extremely accurate clocks and sensors, as well as building blocks for future quantum computers.

"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," Nadlinger said.