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Trio awarded Nobel physics prize for advances in electron dynamics

Trio awarded Nobel physics prize for advances in electron dynamics


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Three scientists have won the Nobel Prize in Physics for showing how to create ultra-short pulses of light that can be used to measure the movements of electrons.

Pierre Agostini of Ohio State University, Ferenc Krausz of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany and Anne L’Huillier of Lund University in Sweden share the SKr11mn ($1mn) prize for creating laser pulses measured in attoseconds — billionths of a billionth of a second, the shortest timescale ever achieved by scientists.

The trio’s decades-long research “gives us the opportunity to understand mechanisms that are governed by electrons”, said Eva Olsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics.

The work is beginning to move from fundamental physics — understanding the properties of electrons — to potential applications in materials science fields such as electronics, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

“Attosecond pulses can also be used to identify different molecules, such as in medical diagnostics,” said the Nobel citation. Putting their duration into context, there are as many attoseconds in one second as there have been seconds since the origin of the universe.

A practical use of attosecond lasers will be as an imaging tool in the semiconductor industry, said L’Huillier, only the fifth woman among 225 Nobel physics laureates. She joined the press conference in Stockholm by phone, after receiving news of her prize in the middle of a lecture to Lund students.

L’Huillier made the first breakthrough in a succession of discoveries that were to lead to attosecond physics at France’s Paris-Saclay university in 1987 and carried on her research after moving to Sweden in the 1990s. “Only now are we seeing applications emerging,” she said. “Basic research is very important and has to be funded.”

The other two laureates followed up L’Huillier’s work, cutting the duration of laser pulses to a few hundreds and then tens of attoseconds.

L’Huillier’s French compatriot Agostini also worked at Paris-Saclay before moving to the US in 2002. Krausz, originally from Hungary, carried out his laser physics research initially at the University of Vienna and then at the Max Planck Institute.

Krausz’s lab is “taking the first steps towards biological applications”, said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Combining attosecond physics with broadband optics, the researchers are developing new ways to detect changes in the molecular composition of biological fluids, including detection of diseases from blood samples.

Michael Moloney, chief executive of the American Institute of Physics, said: “These techniques help us peer inside atoms to the scale of electrons, which were previously moving too fast for us to see. We didn’t have a strobe light fast enough to resolve the motion.”

Mete Atatüre, head of the Cavendish physics laboratory at the University of Cambridge, said: “The pursuit of short intense pulses over decades has allowed us to see how matter behaves at shorter and shorter timescales. They act as our highest-resolution meter stick for how the world works.”

The physics award is the second of this year’s six Nobel Prizes, after Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman won the medicine award on Monday for discoveries leading to mRNA-based Covid vaccines. Prizes for chemistry, literature, peace and economics will be announced in the coming week.


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