A mind-bending image of a single strontium atom, held near motionless by electric fields, has won the overall prize in a national science photography competition, organized by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Here it is:

“In the center of the picture, a small bright dot is visible – a single positively-charged strontium atom. It is held nearly motionless by electric fields emanating from the metal electrodes surrounding it. […] 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. [..] Laser-cooled atomic ions provide a pristine platform for exploring and harnessing the unique properties of quantum physics. They are used to construct extremely accurate clocks or, as in this research, as building blocks for future quantum computers, which could tackle problems that stymie even today’s largest supercomputers.”

The EPSRC content allows researchers and doctoral students to share another side of their work. It’s fitting that this year, it was won by an image of a single atom, as it shows just how much you can say through a single image.

David Nadlinger, says that the photo idea came as a way to bridge the invisible, microscopic world of the quantum world with our macroscopic, everyday life.

“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.” What a beautiful homage to Carl Sagan!

Nadlinger’s wasn’t the only breathtaking image in the competition. Here are a few more stunning entries.

Photograph: Estelle Beguin/University of Oxford/EPSRC Photography Competition 2017.

Microbubbles are currently used to enhance the contrast of ultrasound diagnostic images. They are also explored as a way to deliver drugs to targeted areas such as tumors. Here, an electron microscopy image shows a micron-sized bubble coated with nano-sized liposomes containing the drug.

Photograph: Dr Mahetab Amer/University of Nottingham/EPSRC Photography Competition 2017.

High throughput screening is used to screen polymers and investigate their material properties, as well as their biocompatibility. This, in turn, enables researchers to understand how these polymers can turn human mesenchymal stem cells’ into bone cells. The attached cells show different morphologies on different polymer surfaces, shown here.

Photograph: Alastair Marsh/University of Bath/EPSRC Photography Competition 2017.

Just Mud, or the Future Sustainable Concrete by Alastair Marsh, University of Bath Soil, has potential as a next generation, low-carbon construction material, and could replace concrete blocks. But to unlock its potential, researchers must first understand how they can turn different clays into water-resistant, strong and durable materials.

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You can see all the entries here.

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