Three scientists have been awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing light pulses that are so brief that they can be used to observe the inner workings of atoms. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which selects the Nobel laureates in physics, announced on Tuesday (Oct. 3) that Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L’Huillier will share the 11 million Swedish krona ($1.02 million) prize for developing a method to generate light pulses measured in attoseconds — one quintillionth of a second.
An attosecond is what a second is to the age of the universe — a tiny slice of time so short that it can be used to see the activities of electrons and molecules.
L’Huillier, a physicist at Lund University in Sweden and just the fifth woman to earn the prize, said via phone at Tuesday’s press conference that she was lecturing when she received the news.
“The last half hour of my lecture was a bit difficult to do,” she went on to say. “As you know, there are not so many women that get this prize, so it is very, very special.”
We can now open the door to the world of electrons. Attosecond physics gives us the opportunity to understand mechanisms that are governed by electrons. The next step will be to utilize themEva Olsson
When light particles, or photons, enter the eyes, human perception stitches the individual images they convey into a continuous movement film, but its precision is limited by the brain’s visual processing speed.
The length of the light pulses employed to slice up a specific process is also a constraint for artificial devices. This means that physicists can only observe atomic and electron processes using the smallest trains of light.
The trio’s contributions began in 1987, when L’Huillier found that beaming laser light through a noble gas produced many overtones of light, each with different frequencies. If these overtones were placed on top of each other so they mostly canceled out, L’Huillier discovered that she was left with an incredibly short pulse of light.
Her work was eventually picked up by Agostini, a physicist at Ohio State University, and Krausz, a physicist at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, who modified the approach to create 250 attosecond consecutive pulses and 650 attosecond individual pulses.
According to the Nobel Committee, the approach offers the door for the monitoring and control of electrons, which are responsible for carrying electricity, and molecules valuable for medical purposes on the smallest of scales.
“We can now open the door to the world of electrons. Attosecond physics gives us the opportunity to understand mechanisms that are governed by electrons. The next step will be utilizing them,” Eva Olsson, the Chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said in a statement.