Nobel Physics 2023: How attosecond light waves allow us to look at electrons
Scientists win Nobel Prize for studying ultrafast electron movement in atoms, paving the way for new discoveries.
Three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for studying the incredibly fast movement of electrons within atoms, an unimaginably brief period known as an "attosecond."
The Nobel Prize was granted to Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L'Huillier for their groundbreaking work of creating ultra-short pulses of light that can allow to tracking movement of electrons.
Electrons move at an astonishing pace, and the tiny space in which they move makes them challenging to visualise. They appear as a continuous blur when observed. To capture their motion, a very fast burst of light, matching their speed, is required. This is where the trio's innovation comes into play, as they developed a way to create attosecond-sized light waves.
But how small is an attosecond?
An attosecond is one quintillionth of a second (10^-18). To put it in perspective, if you stretched an attosecond to be one full second, a blink of an eye would take nearly the entire age of the Universe!
So, how did these scientists make their contributions?
In 1987, Anne L'Huillier made a significant discovery when she directed special laser light through a particular type of gas. This light generated various patterns of light waves known as "overtones." These overtones emerged because the laser light interacted with the gas's atoms, giving some tiny electrons additional energy, which they then emitted as light. Anne L'Huillier continued her research, laying the foundation for further breakthroughs.
In 2001, Pierre Agostini created and studied a series of extremely brief bursts of light, each lasting just 250 attoseconds. Simultaneously, Ferenc Krausz was working on an experiment that allowed him to isolate a single burst of light, lasting 650 attoseconds.
But why are these super-fast electrons so important?
According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which announced the prize in Stockholm, the experiments conducted by these three scientists have provided humanity with new tools for exploring the behaviour of electrons inside atoms and molecules.
Their research helps us comprehend how electrons behave within atoms and molecules, and this knowledge can open the door to new discoveries in electronics, disease diagnosis, and chemistry.
Although the practical applications may not be immediately apparent, scientists emphasize the importance of studying fundamental science like this, as it lays the groundwork for future advancements, even if we don't fully understand their potential right now.