Quantum physicist photographs a single atom you can see with the naked eye

Ever think you’d see a single atom without staring down the barrel of a microscope?

Ever think you'd see a single atom without staring down the barrel of a microscope? Oxford University physicist David Nadlinger has won the top prize in the fifth annual Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's (EPSRC) national science photography competition for his image 'Single Atom in an Ion Trap', which does something incredible: makes a single atom visible to the human eye.



Click image to zoom. Photo: David Nadlinger/EPSRC

Captured on an ordinary digital camera, the image shows an atom of strontium suspended by electric fields emanating from the metal electrodes of an ion trap—those electrodes are about 2mm apart. Nadlinger shot the photo through the window of the ultra-high vacuum chamber that houses the ion trap, which is used to explore the potential of laser-cooled atomic ions in new applications such as highly accurate atomic clocks and sensors, and quantum computing.

Strontium is a soft, silvery metal that burns in air and reacts with water. It's best known for giving fireworks and flares their brilliant red glow, and for being one of the key ingredients in 'glow-in-the-dark' paints and plastics, as it can absorb light and re-emit it slowly. Which is exactly what happened in this photograph.

In the photo caption, Nadlinger explains: “When illuminated by a laser of the right blue-violet color, the atom absorbs and re-emits light particles sufficiently quickly for an ordinary camera to capture it in a long exposure photograph." The Strontium atom appears larger than its true size because it was emitting light, and was oscillating slightly, over the course of the long exposure.

Of his inspiration for the winning photo, he says:

"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. 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."

'Single Atom in Ion Trap' won 1st place in the 'Equipment and Facilities' category, and was the overall competition winner. The EPSRC photography competition has five categories in total: Eureka & Discovery, Equipment & Facilities, People & Skills, Innovation, and Weird & Wonderful.

Here are some of the other winning images:

1st place Eureka and Discovery: 'In a kitchen far, far away...' by Li Shen


The fluid instability patterns on top of a spherical soap bubble in a kitchen sink. The two sides of the image show some of the different physical phenomena studied in the research into how foams form and behave in lubricants and products like drinks. Photo: Li Shen, Imperial College London

1st place Innovation: 'Microbubble for drug delivery' by Estelle Beguin


A micron-sized bubble coated with nano-sized liposomes containing a drug. Microbubbles are being explored for therapeutic applications and improve the delivery of drugs to diseased targets such as tumors. Photo: Estelle Beguin, University of Oxford.

1st place People and Skills: 'Spiderman on George IV Bridge' by Richard Coyne


A volunteer wearing an Electroencephalography (
EEG) headset that records brain activity as he walks along George IV Bridge Edinburgh. Researchers used EEG to measure the neural responses of older people to different outdoor urban environments, from busy roads to a quiet park. Photo: Richard Coyne, University of Edinburgh

1st place Weird and Wonderful: 'Nature's Nanosized Net for Capturing Colour'

The micrometer-scale structures that cover a butterfly's wing that trap the Sun's rays and give rise to an array of dazzling colors. Photo: Bernice Akpinar, Imperial College London

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.