The Sciences

#70: A Single Electron Is Caught on Film

Scientists make one of the world's most remarkable movies.

By Stephen OrnesDec 10, 2008 12:00 AM

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One of the year’s most remarkable motion pictures lasts just 3 seconds—and that’s after it has been slowed down a billion billion times. The film documents an electron in motion the instant after it was booted from an atom by an ultraviolet pulse. Created by an international team of physicists, the movie is the first of its kind.

Individual electrons move too quickly for ordinary cameras to capture in a clear image. But a new method that generates supershort bursts of laser light allowed researchers to nab a high-resolution shot of the elusive electron. Each flash of light lasted only an attosecond. To comprehend how brief that is, consider that one second contains about twice as many attoseconds as there are seconds in the 14-billion-year life of the universe, says physicist Johan Mauritsson of Lund University in Sweden, who led the study. An electron orbits a hydrogen atom in about 150 attoseconds.

Mauritsson speculates that his high-resolution camera might help physicists understand how electrons interact with each other, but he doesn’t have a specific research goal in mind. “We don’t know exactly what we’ll use it for,” he says. “We push the limits because the limits are there to be pushed.”

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