The winners of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics are Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L’Huillier. The award was given for their discovery of how to generate pulses of light that last for attoseconds – that is one billionth billionth of a second. The prize is worth 11 million Swedish kronor (around 1 million US dollars at the time of publishing), which will be shared equally among the three winners.
The ratio between one second and an attosecond is the same as the age of the universe and one heartbeat. The winners worked out how to produce flashes of light that can last for such a short fraction of time and also how to measure these intervals. This has opened up a window into studying the behavior of electrons around atoms.
The attosecond pulses can be created in different ways but they are used a bit like high-speed cameras that record an action in slow-motion (think a bullet flying through the air). The bullet in this case is an electron moving around an atom or in a molecule. By snapping all these photograms, scientists can stitch them together into a coherent movie.
In this movie, researchers can follow the motion of electrons and atoms as they change during a chemical reaction. This is a window into the world of atoms that can provide insights into reactions. Applications range from more control in chemical reactions to understanding peculiar processes like materials going from insulators to conductors. Even understanding biological markers that could indicate cancer, for example, could be helped by these observations.