Beyond the Blink of an Eye: Attosecond Spectroscopy Wins 2023 Nobel Prize

Bhaumik Tyagi
9 min readOct 12, 2023
By starting with a femtosecond laser and compressing the pulses, and then passing those pulses through a noble gas, extreme ultraviolet (or XUV) pulses can be generated with attosecond-level speeds. This enables scientists to probe the behavior of individual electrons within atoms and molecules, using the technique of attosecond spectroscopy. The 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for advances made in precisely this field. (Credit: Attosecond Research Center, Milan Polytechnic)

In the pursuit of comprehending and quantifying our surroundings, the capability to capture precise visual representations of dynamic events emerges as a paramount instrument. In the 19th century, the practice of photography necessitated the complete immobilization of the subject, allowing for the accumulation of copious amounts of light over several seconds. In contemporary times, we have harnessed the power of high-speed photography, which employs condensed “pulses” of light to capture fleeting moments in the lifecycle of subjects, including those in motion. While visible light serves this purpose effectively for macroscopic entities, microscopic phenomena necessitate a specialized technology: high-speed laser pulses, which can operate at various wavelengths to reveal the rapid intricacies of these minuscule scales.

Due to the diminutive size of individual atoms and molecules, often spanning only an Angstrom, or approximately (10^-10 meters), it follows that transitions and alterations occurring within these entities, which are predominantly driven by the behavior of electrons, can transpire within a timespan equivalent to the distance traversed by light in vacuum, divided by the speed of light, which is approximately 3 × 10⁸ meters per second. This calculation yields durations on the order of attoseconds, with a solitary attosecond constituting a mere 10^-18 seconds. The capacity to capture visual data on such an exceptionally short timescale is indeed attainable, provided we are capable of generating laser pulses of sufficient brevity. This extraordinary achievement in ultrafast imaging has been acknowledged through the awarding of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics to Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L’Huillier. The subsequent elucidation delves into the scientific underpinnings of this remarkable advancement.

Credit: J. Liang, L. Zhu & L.V. Wang, 2018, Light: Science & Applications

When observing the unfolding of the world through human perception, our brains have the capacity to render the visual information into a seemingly continuous and uninterrupted narrative. This perceptual illusion creates the impression of a seamless transition from one moment to the next. However, this conventional view stands in stark contrast to the behavior of the quantum realm, where reality operates under different principles.

At the quantum level, the process of visual perception operates as follows:

  1. Individual quanta of light reach the photosensitive cells, specifically the rods and cones, within the human retina.
  2. These incoming photons stimulate the photoreceptor molecules residing within the cells, resulting in the excitation of electrons to higher energy states.
  3. Subsequently, these elevated-energy electrons undergo a de-excitation process.
  4. This de-excitation process generates electrical impulses within the cells located within the human body.
  5. These electrical signals initiate neural responses, ultimately transmitting information to the brain.
  6. Within the brain, the received data is processed in the visual cortex, culminating in the generation of coherent images.
  7. Importantly, the brain interprets these visual images in relation to previously processed information.
  8. Concurrently, new quanta of light continue to arrive at the retinal cells, perpetuating this cyclical process.

Remarkably, the human brain and body execute this complex sequence of events dozens, if not hundreds of times per second, granting individuals the capacity to perceive and interpret the macroscopic world as an incessantly shifting and dynamic entity.

In reality, a considerable portion of events transpiring in the natural world is characterized by discontinuous processes, denoting abrupt shifts from one state to another through a sequence of discrete transformations. As we delve deeper into the microscopic realm, where phenomena manifest on increasingly minute length scales, the necessity arises for correspondingly higher-speed probing or imaging techniques to discern these discrete transitions.

This relationship between distance scales and the requisite speed of a pulse for observation is exemplified as follows:

  1. Microsecond (~10^-6 s) pulses facilitate the imaging of alterations occurring on the order of several hundred meters.
  2. Nanosecond (~10^-9 s) pulses provide the capability to capture changes on the scale of a few tenths of a meter.
  3. Picosecond (~10^-12 s) pulses enable the observation of transformations on the order of a few hundred microns, equivalent to the size of a paramecium.
  4. Femtosecond (~10^-15 s) pulses offer the means to investigate changes on the scale of several hundred nanometers, which is the typical dimension of larger molecules.
  5. Attosecond (~10^-18 s) pulses, the most rapid of these, extend the observational capabilities to Angstrom-level scales, affording insights into changes occurring on the scale of individual atoms.

The 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics has been conferred upon three eminent scientists: Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L’Huillier, in recognition of their pioneering contributions to experimental physics, particularly in the realm of attosecond pulse generation. Their work has revolutionized the study of electron dynamics within matter, allowing for direct observations of the rapid behavior of electrons within atoms, molecules, and solid materials.

Electron dynamics, as a field of study, encompasses the comprehensive examination of electron behavior, including their motion, interactions with electromagnetic fields, and responses to external forces. Electrons, which are fundamental particles characterized by a negative charge, typically orbit the dense nucleus of atoms. However, for a substantial period, scientists had to rely on indirect methods to decipher electron behavior, akin to capturing a fast-moving object with a long-exposure photograph, yielding blurred images due to the swift nature of electron movement.

The ephemeral nature of electron behavior posed a significant challenge, rendering electrons nearly imperceptible to conventional measurement techniques. At the atomic and molecular level, motions and interactions occur on astonishingly brief timescales. Atoms within molecules exhibit movements on the order of femtoseconds, representing a millionth of a billionth of a second. Electrons, being substantially lighter and operating at even higher velocities, operate on the attosecond timescale, denoting a billionth of a billionth of a second, or 1×10^-18 seconds. It is essential to note that an attosecond pulse is an extraordinarily brief burst of light that endures for mere attoseconds.

The attainment of attosecond pulse generation represents a remarkable achievement in the realm of experimental physics. While in the 1980s, scientists succeeded in creating light pulses lasting a few femtoseconds, it was widely believed that this was the shortest achievable duration for light pulses. However, to observe the intricate behaviors of electrons, a substantially shorter pulse was necessitated.

The breakthrough leading to the generation of attosecond pulses transpired in 1987 when Anne L’Huillier and her research team at a French laboratory achieved a significant milestone. Their method involved passing an infrared laser beam through a noble gas, resulting in the generation of overtones, which are waves of light characterized by wavelengths that are integer fractions of the original beam. These overtones, emitted in the form of ultraviolet light, exhibited intriguing interference properties. When multiple overtones interacted, they either intensified or canceled each other out, a phenomenon referred to as constructive and destructive interference, respectively.

Source: nobelprize.org

By refining their experimental setup, physicists were able to produce intense attosecond pulses of light, paving the way for the study of electron dynamics at unprecedented temporal resolutions. In 2001, Pierre Agostini and his research group in France successfully generated a series of 250-attosecond light pulses. By combining this pulse train with the original laser beam, they conducted rapid experiments that provided groundbreaking insights into electron dynamics.

Simultaneously, Ferenc Krausz and his team in Austria developed a technique enabling the isolation of individual 650-attosecond pulses from a pulse train. This groundbreaking development empowered researchers to precisely measure the energy of electrons released by krypton atoms, marking a significant advancement in our understanding of fundamental atomic and molecular processes.

Applications of Attosecond Physics:

  1. Probing Short-Lived Phenomena: Attosecond pulses have the unique capability to capture the intricacies of ultrafast atomic and molecular processes, providing valuable insights into their temporal evolution. This is of profound significance in fields such as materials science, electronics, and catalysis, where a comprehensive understanding of rapid transformations is imperative for technological advancement and innovation.
  2. Medical Diagnostics: Attosecond pulses hold promise for applications in the realm of medical diagnostics. Their ability to detect and analyze specific molecules based on their transient signatures offers the potential for enhanced medical imaging and diagnostic techniques, which can significantly benefit the field of healthcare by facilitating more precise and early disease detection.
  3. Advancements in Electronics: The field of attosecond physics is poised to usher in the development of faster and more efficient electronic devices. This has the potential to redefine the landscape of computing and telecommunications technology, leading to the creation of high-speed, energy-efficient, and compact electronic components that could revolutionize various industries.
  4. Enhanced Imaging and Spectroscopy: The manipulation of attosecond pulses extends the horizons of high-resolution imaging and spectroscopy. This technology finds applications in a diverse array of fields, spanning from biology to astronomy. It allows for the visualization of intricate structures and processes at scales previously inaccessible, thereby fostering breakthroughs in our understanding of the natural world and its underlying mechanisms.

Experimental Setup:

The laser light is divided into two beams, where one is used to create a train of attosecond pulses. This pulse train is then added to the original laser pulse, and the combination is used to perform extremely rapid experiments.

📷Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Attosecond pulses have inaugurated a novel temporal domain for physicists, thereby affording them the means to investigate and potentially address fundamental questions that were hitherto beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. For example, attosecond spectroscopy has been instrumental in quantifying the duration required for an electron to liberate itself from an atomic structure. This temporal measurement is contingent upon the electron’s level of binding to the atomic nucleus, a parameter of significant interest. Moreover, attosecond spectroscopy facilitates the reconstruction of dynamic electron positions within molecules and materials, providing insights into their evolving states. Notably, attosecond technology has made it feasible to delve into the timescales underpinning the photoelectric effect, an intricate phenomenon for which Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

📷Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

The scientific foundation for this year’s prize arose from L’Huillier’s 1987 experiments transmitting infrared laser light through a noble gas. Any kind of waveform can be constructed by combining various waves of the right sizes, wavelengths, and amplitudes; to get a waveform capable of capturing an electron’s movements on an atomic scale, one needs to combine lots of very short wavelengths. It’s impossible to do this with just a laser, but L’Huillier’s lab discovered that passing the laser light through a gas will lead to interactions with the atoms in the gas.

This results in overtones, akin to the overtones of sound waves produced by a guitar or piano. The overtones then interact with each other, and under just the right circumstances, those overtones can be “in phase” — that is, the peaks of their waves line up in such a way that they reinforce each other, making the laser light more intense and producing pulses just a few hundred attoseconds long.

Attosecond spectroscopy has not only unlocked a new time window for scientific inquiry but has also revived and expanded the possibilities of answering age-old questions in the realm of physics, including the exploration of the photoelectric effect, for which Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921. This revolutionary technology paves the way for profound advancements across various scientific disciplines, making it a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

“This work is truly groundbreaking. Attosecond laser pulses reveal the hidden world of electron dynamics within atoms and molecules,” said Michael Moloney, CEO of the American Institute of Physics, in a statement. “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. This new window into the natural world allows us to probe electron dynamics in atomic and molecular systems, which are at the heart of the chemical and physical interactions of materials that underpin all our electronic, chemical, and medical innovations and technology.”

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Bhaumik Tyagi

Jr. Research Scientist || Subject Matter Expert || Founder & CTO|| Student Advocate ||