Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded to 3 Scientists for Work on Electrons

By John Mercury October 3, 2023

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier on Tuesday for their experiments that “have given humanity new tools for exploring the world of electrons inside atoms and molecules.”

Electrons move at a whopping 43 miles a second. This speed long made them impossible to study. The new experimental techniques created by the three scientist-laureates use short light pulses to capture an electron’s movement at a single moment in time.

Think of a rotating fan at its highest speed: each blade is a blur. But if you point a strobe light at the fan, every flash will illuminate a frozen moment in time. As the flashes get shorter, more information about the fan is revealed.

To study the movement of electrons, the scientists had to use pulses of light that last an attosecond. An attosecond is one quintillionth of a second. The number of attoseconds in a single second is the same as the number of all the seconds that have elapsed since the universe burst into existence 13.8 billion years ago, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel Prizes.

Eva Olsson, the chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said at a news conference on Tuesday that attosecond science “allows us to address fundamental questions” such as the time scale of the photoelectric effect, the release of electrons from a material when light shines on it. Albert Einstein received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of this effect.

Accessing the ultrafast world of electron motion may also lead to advances in electronic circuitry, drug design and the materials used for batteries.

Pierre Agostini is an emeritus professor at Ohio State University.

Ferenc Krausz is director at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany and a professor of experimental physics at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

Anne L’Huillier is a professor at Lund University in Sweden.

Dr. L’Huillier is the fifth woman to win the prize in Physics. The last woman to be recognized in the category was Andrea Ghez, an astrophysicist, in 2020.

“Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier have demonstrated a way to create extremely short pulses of light that can be used to measure the rapid processes in which electrons move or change energy,” the awarding committee said.

The laureates’ contributions have enabled the investigation of processes so rapid that they were “previously impossible to follow,” it added.

“Through their experiments, this year’s laureates have created flashes of light that are short enough to take snapshots of electrons’ extremely rapid movements,” the committee said in a news release.

“Anne L’Huillier discovered a new effect from laser light’s interaction with atoms in a gas,” the committee said.

“Pierre Agostini and Ferenc Krausz demonstrated that this effect can be used to create shorter pulses of light than were previously possible,” the committee added.

The three laureates’ work will pave the way for potential applications in areas including electronics and medicine, Dr. Olsson said.

According to the awarding committee, attosecond pulses can also be used to identify different molecules, such as in medical diagnostics.

The prize went to John Clauser, Alain Aspect and Anton Zeilinger for independent works exploring quantum weirdness.

On Monday, the prize in Physiology or Medicine went to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for a chemical modification to messenger RNA. Their research led to the successful development of the Covid-19 vaccine and saved millions of lives. Dr. Karikó is the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in this category.

  • The Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be awarded on Wednesday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Last year, Carolyn R. Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and K. Barry Sharpless shared the prizes for work on click chemistry.

  • The Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded on Thursday by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. Last year, Annie Ernaux was given the prize for work that dissected the most humiliating, private and scandalous moments from her past with almost clinical precision.

  • The Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded on Friday by the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo. Last year, the prize was shared by Memorial, a Russian organization; the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine; and Ales Bialiatski, a jailed Belarusian activist.

  • Next week, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences will be awarded on Monday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Last year, Ben S. Bernanke, Douglas W. Diamond and Philip H. Dybvig shared the prize for work that helped to reshape how the world understands the relationship between banks and financial crises.

All of the prize announcements will also be streamed live by the Nobel Prize organization.

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