This First Ever Photograph of an Atom is Taking the World by Storm

Never trust an atom—they make up everything

This photograph of an atom was taken with an ordinary camera. In February 2018 the image won the overall prize for science photography in the fifth annual competition hosted by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Centre (EPSRC) in the U.K.


What you are gazing upon is a single atom. Of course, atoms make up everything so you already see billions of them every day! The quest to understand the intricacies of the atomic world has been at the forefront of science for many decades. Today, as this fantastic world continues to woo even the most traditional of scientists, this fascination has even found a place amongst popular culture. With the widespread adoption of quantum physics, made popular by scientific idols such as Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and Michio Kaku, it’s no wonder we are in the middle of a perpetual technological revolution.

David Nadlinger said in a recent interview,

“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.”

Mr Nadlinger realised that a positively charged strontium atom will absorb and emit a specific hue of violet-blue laser. So, one Sunday he took a long exposure with his camera, knowing that there would be enough light reflected by the strontium ion to appear on film.

It’s images such as this that offer a raw connection to the subtle world of atomic matter and vibrational energies. We are all familiar with the computer-generated images taken from electron microscopes, powerful telescopes and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). There’s magnificence in knowing that the building blocks of life can be viewed by the naked eye. That little speck of light you see in the image above symbolises how we can better realize unison by studying division.


27,000 atoms in only a few nanometers

Pushing the envelope even further, a group at the University of California in Los Angeles has used cutting-edge imaging technology to map out the atomic arrangement of a platinum particle. The mapped particle is only a few nanometers wide but is estimated to contain over 27,000 atoms! (Put into perspective, about five million million hydrogen atoms could fit on the head of a pin.) By taking many sliced and angled shots they have been able to see the position of almost every individual atom. It may all sound like boring and meticulous work, which I’m sure it can be, but the repercussions of this groundwork lays the foundation for some very interesting stuff.


Constructing objects—atom-by-atom

By altering the atomic composition of objects we can significantly change their properties. If you’re one who has studied the theories surrounding anti-gravity technologies or faster-than-light travel then you’ll already see the massive potential in constructing objects atom-by-atom. This alone has potential to make all of our electrical devices thousands of times more efficient as well as paving the way for new and interesting technologies, but more on that another time.

To see or not to see—quantum superposition

One important thing to remember about these images is that they are captured with long photographic exposures. Atoms are made up of oscillating energy, all vibrating at different frequencies, which gives them their different atomic mass and density. This is why we need a lot of light to be reflected from an atom in order to see it appear on camera. In fact, what we are seeing here is mostly empty space. Quantum superposition dictates that, without an observer, that atom could not be there at all… or in all places at once. Yet, still we have here an atom, clear and defined; a little speck of a reminder that the further we divide and analyze, the deeper our understanding and expression of unison becomes. There is beauty in the eye of the beholder.



References & Further Reading

Hermeticism and the History of Science, open article – This Picture of a Single Atom Just Won a Science Photography Prize

CERN website, Large Hadron Collider research – Basics of the Higgs Boson, open article – Platinum clusters with precise numbers of atoms for preparative-scale catalysis – Interview with Mihai Dragos Potra on quantum science and art.

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