Picture of an atom

A sensational photo reveals an atom in full levitation

Rather intriguing and apparently difficult to interpret, a photo has just immortalized an incredible scientific phenomenon: the levitation of a strontium atom in an electric field. Maintained between two electrodes spaced by only two millimeters, the particle could not afford to our eyes without the help of very particular conditions. Only a pressure several billion times lower than that of the atmosphere and an extremely low temperature made it possible to obtain this photo, winner of the grand prize of the photo competition organized by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Decrypting such a photo is a priori not easy. And yet, the game is worth the candle: in the center of the cliché hides an incredible element. Discreet but yet there, a tiny particle proudly sits in the middle of the image: a strontium atom.

If you look closer, you end up seeing it. A zoom on the photo allows to approach it, he sits among an interweaving of son, connections and precision machined parts. These elements constitute the incredible device which made it possible to give birth to the cliché of this positively charged atom.

An electric field to maintain the atom

In a bluish color, it levitates within an electric field generated by two tiny metal needles spaced only two millimeters apart. A laser that projects a blue-violet light bombardes the strontium atom with its radiation. It then emits photons, captured by the camera.

To capture them, David Nadlinger, a physics researcher at Oxford University, used a particular technique of photography: long exposure. For a long time, the photographer of the infinitely small left open the shutter of his camera, so that the light takes the time to reach the sensor, and thus manages to generate a quality image.

Winner of the grand prize of the photo competition organized by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a British research organization, the cliche could never have come to life outside an enclosure specially set up for the occasion: a room at high vacuum. In the interior there is a pressure billions of times lower than that of the atmosphere, but also an extremely low temperature. Conditions that keep the strontium atom stationary.

When science brings emotion

From a transparent porthole, David Nadlinger immortalized the scene of this incredible scientific show. A painting that could compete with the greatest works of art and that testifies for its part of the beauty of physical phenomena. Emotion did not fail to strike the British physicist: "The idea of ​​being able to see a single atom with the naked eye has been revealed to me as a marvelously direct and visceral bridge between the tiny quantum world and our macroscopic reality, "says David Nadlinger in a statement.

Beyond the wonder that such a photo can provoke, the prowess achieved by the physicist also promises perspectives previously unimaginable. The mastery of this technique could indeed allow researchers to study and control the properties of the quantum world, but also and especially help the manufacture of atomic clocks, or even contribute to the development of the computer of tomorrow: computers quantum. A cliché a priori enigmatic whose decryption finally leaves glimpses of the future of physics.

Author: admin

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