What is an attosecond — and why did this year’s Nobel Prize in physics depend upon them?

A group of three researchers earned the 2023 Nobel Prize in physics for work that has revolutionized how scientists study the electron — by illuminating molecules with attosecond-long flashes of light. But how long is an attosecond, and what can these infinitesimally short pulses tell researchers about the nature of matter?

I first learned of this area of research as a graduate student in physical chemistry. My doctoral adviser’s group had a project dedicated to studying chemical reactions with attosecond pulses. Before understanding why attosecond research resulted in the most prestigious award in the sciences, it helps to understand what an attosecond pulse of light is.

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