The Nobel Prize Stories 2 – Attosecond Magic: Candid Snapshots of Electrons!


As three distinguished individuals receive the Nobel Prize in Physics, we plunge into the enchanting realm of attoseconds in this second instalment of The Nobel Prize Stories series. Among the trio, one is a woman, making her the fifth woman in history to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Nobel Prize Winners in the Field of Physics

Pierre Agostini of Ohio State University in Columbus, Ferenc Krausz of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, and Anne L’Huillier of Lund University, Sweden, jointly received the Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking work on attosecond pulses of light.

What is an Attosecond?

Picture a single second—the time it takes to snap your fingers. If you split that second into a billion parts, you’d arrive at something incredibly short called a nanosecond.

But, let’s delve even deeper. Divide that nanosecond into another billion segments, and voila, you’ve reached the attosecond territory!

Now, to put this into perspective, consider this: “The fastest thing we know is light,” which can traverse the earth approximately eight times in a mere second. Astoundingly, even though light possesses such blistering speed, within an attosecond, it could only journey from one end of a single water molecule to the other! With a diameter of merely 0.3 nanometres (where a nanometre equals one-millionth of a millimetre), the water molecule’s size is almost beyond our comprehension. The term “Nano” originates from the Ancient Greek word for dwarf, nanos. This perfectly captures the essence of attosecond physics: it’s all about minuscule quantum entities that move at mind-boggling speeds.

Why the Fuss About Attoseconds?

Thanks to attosecond physics, scientists can observe the tiniest particles at the briefest intervals. For instance, they use attoseconds to study rapid phenomena, like the movement of electrons within atoms. Understanding electron movement has vast implications, from the creation of quicker computers to medical diagnostics and more.

Electron Snapshots!

Image above: Our Imagined Electron Snapshot

Actual Electron snapshot is above

 Scientists have captured intricate electron patterns (a,b). The colour variations represent the phase, while the brightness signifies amplitude. They’re displayed on the HSV colour map, as seen in (c).

Credits: Hiromichi Niikura from Waseda University (

The Leap from Femtoseconds to Attoseconds

For a long time, only femtosecond laser pulses were accessible. They could capture the motion of atoms, not the swifter and lighter electrons. Freezing these electrons required an innovative attosecond flash technology.

In the late ’80s, a team, including L’Huillier, experimented with lasers and gases. They observed that when gas interacted with lasers, it emitted brilliant flashes. This discovery was akin to a ping-pong game: lasers repelled an electron only to quickly draw it back, causing a luminous burst.

Fast-forward to the 2000s. Agostini and his team learned to convert these flashes into ultra-speedy light bursts—attosecond pulses. However, they overlapped. That’s when Krausz figured out how to segregate them effectively.

By 2001, Ferenc Krausz had crafted brief attosecond light pulses—a groundbreaking feat recognized by esteemed science publications in 2002. This innovation was anchored in cutting-edge mirrors developed by Krausz and Robert Szipöcs, facilitating the production of these swift laser bursts. By 2002, coupled with Theodor Hänsch’s award-winning method, they further refined these light pulses. These bursts, when focused on atoms, momentarily dislodged electrons, and as these electrons realigned, the atoms emitted rapid flashes, some lasting less than 100 attoseconds.

Soon, researchers began to explore fleeting events, from understanding the velocity of light ejecting particles from objects to probing molecular responses when poked by these rapid bursts. The potential applications in medicine and technology are boundless.

In L’Huillier’s words, the journey began with the curiosity to observe swift events, but now they’re exploring its vast applications.

Reflections from the Winners

What do the laureates feel about this monumental recognition? Listen to their exhilarating reactions below!

Applause for the Breakthroughs!

The advancements in attosecond science promise unprecedented strides in medicine, technology, chemistry, and of course, physics.

Stay tuned for more exciting science revelations, fun tidbits, and much more!