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This Photo Of A Single Atom Just Blew My Mind

The photo received a top science photography award–and made me ponder my own existence in the universe.

This Photo Of A Single Atom Just Blew My Mind
[Photo: David Nadlinger/University of Oxford]

If you really zoom into the middle of this image you’ll see a tiny pixel. That little spot is not a mote of dust on the camera lens or an imperfection on the sensor. No, that thing is one single atom, floating in the air, confined by an ion trap–an invisible electric field that is used to capture particles–emitting blue light because it is positively charged.

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[Photo: David Nadlinger/University of Oxford]
Its author is University of Oxford’s PhD student David Nadlinger, who says that when he’s not pondering quantum physics, he “writes software or dabbles in music and design.” Apparently, he takes awesome photos too. Here’s how he explains why he wanted to take this image:

“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.”

A different kind of pale blue dot, but just as extraordinary as Voyager’s famed eponymous photo of the Earth looking like “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”  Consider this [*puts Carl Sagan hat on*]: There are an estimated 10^80 atoms in the observable Universe, a number so large that it makes absolutely no sense to the human brain. We are all just groups of these atoms that, somehow, became sentient millions of years ago, perhaps as “a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

[Photo: David Nadlinger/University of Oxford]
But even while we know that atoms make up everything we can see, we can’t see them individually. Unless we look closely at that little pale blue dot, suspended in the middle of an ion trap. It makes me giddy with nerdy happiness, so it’s no wonder that the image snagged Nadlinger the grand prize for the best science photo of the year from the British Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

One last fun fact: The pale blue dot is a strontium atom, a “soft silver-white yellowish metallic element that is highly reactive chemically,” And, as a salt, humans use it to make fireworks bright red.

About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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