Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for studying how electrons zip around the atom during in the tiniest fractions of seconds, a field that could one day lead to better electronics or disease diagnoses.
The award went to Pierre Agostini, Hungarian-born Ferenc Krausz and French-born Anne L'Huillier for their work with the tiny part of each atom that races around the center and that is fundamental to virtually everything: chemistry, physics, our bodies and our gadgets.
Electrons move around so fast that they have been out of reach of human efforts to isolate them, but by looking at the tiniest fraction of a second possible, scientists now have a "blurry" glimpse of them and that opens up whole new sciences, experts said.
"The electrons are very fast, and the electrons are really the workforce in everywhere," Nobel Committee member Mats Larsson said. "Once you can control and understand electrons, you have taken a very big step forward."
L'Huillier is the fifth woman to receive a Nobel in physics.
WHAT DISCOVERY WON THE NOBEL PRIZE IN PHYSICS?
To understand how an electron travels, the scientists had to look at an extremely short time period — one quintillionth of a second known as an attosecond — just like a photographer uses a quick shutter speed when photographing a hummingbird.
How small is it?
"Let's take one second, which is the time of a heartbeat," Nobel Committee chair Eva Olsson said. To get the realm of the attosecond, that would have to be divided by 1,000 six times.
Physicist Mark Pearce, a Nobel Committee member, said "there are as many attoseconds in a second as there are seconds which have passed since the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago. So it's an extremely short period of time."
But even when they "see" the electron, there's only so much they can view.
"You can see whether it's on the one side of a molecule or on the other," L'Huillier, 65, said. "It's still very blurry."
"The electrons are much more like waves, like water waves, than particles and what we try to measure with our technique is the position of the crest of the waves," she added.
WHY DO ELECTRONS MATTER?
The scientists' experiments "have given humanity new tools for exploring the world of electrons inside atoms and molecules," according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which announced the prize in Stockholm.
At the moment, this science is about understanding our universe, but the hope is that it will eventually have many practical applications in electronics, diagnosing diseases and basic chemistry.
But L'Huillier, of Lund University in Sweden, said her work shows how important it is to work on fundamental science regardless of future applications because she spent 30 years on it before possible real word uses became more apparent.
HOW DID L'HUILLIER AND KRAUSZ REACT?
L'Huillier said she was teaching when she got the call that she had won. She joked that it was hard to finish the lesson.
"This is the most prestigious and I am so happy to get this prize. It's incredible," she told the news conference announcing the prize. "As you know there are not so many women who got this prize so it's very special."
Swedish news agency TT reached Krausz, 61, of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, by phone in Germany, where it is holiday.
"My colleagues are enjoying their day off, but I hope that we will meet tomorrow and then we will probably open a bottle of champagne," he was quoted as saying.
Agostini is affiliated with Ohio State University in the U.S.
The Nobel Prizes carry a cash award of 11 million Swedish kronor ($1 million). The money comes from a bequest left by the prize's creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel. The laureates are invited to receive their awards at ceremonies on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death.
The physics prize comes a day after Hungarian-American Katalin Karikó and American Drew Weissman won the Nobel Prize in medicine for discoveries that enabled the creation of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.
Nobel announcements will continue with the chemistry prize on Wednesday and the literature prize on Thursday. The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and the economics award on Oct. 9.
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