This Award-Winning Photo Shows a Single Atom, And You Can See It With the Naked Eye

Atoms are extremely small. Even with the most powerful
microscopes, it’s impossible to see one with the naked eye. At least, such was
the case in the past. We now have an image of a single atom floating in an
electric field that can be seen without the use of a microscope.


The picture “Single Atom In An Ion Trap,” taken by David
Nadlinger and featured above, won the Engineering and Physical Sciences
Research Council’s scientific photography competition. A single strontium atom
is embedded in a powerful electric field and then blasted by lasers, causing it
to radiate light.

Despite the fact that the atom is visible, it is not the
easiest to see. A faint blue dot can be seen in the center of the photo if you
look properly. A blue-violet laser illuminates the strontium atom in this


This Award Winning Photo Shows a Single Atom, And You Can See It With the Naked Eye

Strontium is used in this equipment because of its size:
one single atom has 38 protons and a diameter of a a few millionths of a
millimeter. Normally, this would be too minuscule to see, but this
configuration uses a creative approach to brighten the atom significantly.

A high-powered laser strikes a strontium atom in the
snapshot, causing the electrons surrounding the atom to become more energetic.
These charged electrons will occasionally emit light. An ordinary camera can
photograph the atom if there are enough energized electrons emitting enough

However, this does not imply that you will be able to see
the atom with your own eyes. This is a long-exposure photo, so even with all
that laser light, it’s too faint to see without special equipment. However,
given how small atoms are, staring at this photo is probably the closest you’ll