Photo of a single atom wins science photography prize

15 February 2018

David Nadlinger: Single Atom in an Ion Trap

A photo of a single atom has won a national science photography prize organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Single Atom in an Ion Trap by David Nadlinger from the University of Oxford, allows the atom to be seen by the naked eye by holding it nearly motionless by electric fields, created by surrounding metal electrodes.

It shows two needles with tips two millimetres apart, and in between a small blue dot, which is the atom. When illuminated by a blue-violet laser, the atom absorbs and re-emits light particles quickly enough for a camera to capture it in a long-exposure shot. The image was taken through the window of a vacuum chamber.

“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,” says the photographer. “A back-of-the-envelope calculation showed the numbers to be on my side, and when I set off to the lab with a camera and tripods one quiet Sunday afternoon, I was rewarded with this particular picture of a small, pale blue dot.”

David Nadlinger’s photo won the Equipment and Facilities category before being named the overall winner. Another category winner was In a kitchen far far away by Li Shen, Imperial College London, which captures the fluid instability patterns on a spherical soap bubble in a kitchen sink. This was taken using a “highly customised set-up comprising two Quality Street biscuit tins, an oven tray, parts of a Tesco water bottle, a piece of transparency paper, Fairy Liquid, a builder’s lamp and a DSLR camera, a Nikon D500 with a 105mm VR macro lens”. It won the Eureka and Discovery category.

Estelle Beguin, also from the University of Oxford, won the Innovation category for her photo Microbubble for drug delivery. It depicts 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 tumours.


David Nadlinger: Single Atom in an Ion Trap – close-up


Estelle Beguin: Microbubble for drug delivery


Li Shen: In a kitchen far far away

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Jenny Brewer

Jenny (she/her) is online editor of It’s Nice That, overseeing the website’s daily editorial output. She was previously news editor for five years. Contact her with stories, pitches and tips relating to the creative industries on

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