Nobel Prize for scientists who explored the world of electrons

3 Oct 2023

Illustration of Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier. Image: Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Prize

Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier worked on generating superfast pulses of light, which can be used to observe changes in electrons.

Three scientists based in the US, Germany and Sweden have been awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics for giving humanity the tools to learn more about electrons.

Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier have been recognised for their experiments to create extremely short pulses of light, which can be used to measure the rapid ways that electrons move or change energy.

The Nobel Committee said their research has the potential to boost various fields, such as electronics – by understanding how electrons behave in a material – and in healthcare – by using rapid pulses of light for medical diagnosis.

The world of electrons moves extremely fast, with changes happening at a few tenths of an attosecond – for context, an attosecond is about one quintillionth of a second. The Nobel Committee said there are as many attoseconds in one second as there have been seconds since the birth of the universe.

This immense speed means special technology is required to investigate these brief changes. The pulses of light generated by these three scientists are so short that they can be used to provide images of processes inside atoms and molecules.

In 1987, L’Huillier discovered that many different overtones of light arose when she transmitted infrared laser light through a noble gas.

These overtones are caused by the laser light interacting with atoms in the gas, as the light gives some electrons extra energy which is then emitted as light. This discovery helped lay the groundwork for subsequent breakthroughs, according to the Nobel Committee.

In 2001, Agostini succeeded in producing a series of consecutive light pulses, with each pulse lasting for only 250 attoseconds. At the same time, Krausz was working with another type of experiment, which made it possible to isolate a single light pulse that lasted 650 attoseconds.

Eva Olsson, the chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said this work helped to “open the door to the world of electrons”.

“Attosecond physics gives us the opportunity to understand mechanisms that are governed by electrons,” Olsson said. “The next step will be utilising them.”

Who are they?

L’Huillier is a French physicist who obtained her PhD in 1986 from the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, obtaining a permanent researcher position at France’s CEA research organisation the same year. In 1995, she became an associate professor at Lund University in Sweden, before being appointed professor of physics in 1997.

Agostini obtained his PhD in 1968 from Aix-Marseille University in France. He is currently a professor at the Ohio State University in the US.

Krausz was born in Hungary and received his PhD in 1991 from the Vienna University of Technology in Austria. He is currently the director at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany and a professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

Last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to John F Clauser, Alain Aspect and Anton Zeilinger for their “groundbreaking experiments” on entangled quantum states, which cleared the way for new tech based on quantum information.

Yesterday (2 October) Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on mRNA therapies, which led to the development of the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic