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

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

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A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
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