Watching an electron being born
(NCYT/TUW) In the experiment, short laser pulses are fired at atoms. Each laser pulse can be described as a light wave - the wave sweeps over the atom, and therefore, the electric field around the atom changes. The electric field rips an electron away from the atom - but the precise moment at which this happens cannot be defined. "The electron is not removed from the atom at one point in time during the interaction with the laser pulse. There is a superposition of several processes, as it is often the case in quantum mechanics", says Markus Kitzler from the Photonics Institute at TU Vienna. One single electron leaves the atom at different points in time, and these processes combine, much like waves on a water surface, combining to a complex wave pattern.
"These quantum mechanical wave-interferences give us information about the initial quantum state of the electron during the ionization process", says Professor Joachim Burgdörfer (Institute for Theoretical Physics, TU Vienna), whose research team closely collaborated with the experimentalists at the Photonics Institute.
|Markus Kitzler (left) and Xinhua Xie (Photo: TUW)|
An important tool for these measurements was a very special laser beam, containing two different wavelengths. The laser pulse interacting with the atom could be tailored very precisely. Using these pulses, the scientists could measure the quantum phase which the electron had inside the atom (with respect to the beat defined by the laser light) before it was removed by the laser. "This quantum phase that we can measure now, also tells us about the electron's energy states inside the atom, and about the precise position at which the ionization took place", says Markus Kitzler. To do that, the scientists had to measure the quantum phase with an incredible precision of less than ten attoseconds.
The time span of ten attoseconds (10*10^(-18) seconds) is so short that any comparison to everyday timescales fails. The ratio of ten years to a second is 300 million to one. Dividing a second by the same factor takes us to the incredibly short time scale of three nanoseconds - in this period, light travels one meter. This is the time scale of microelectronics. Again dividing this tiny period of time by a factor of 300 million, we arrive at about ten attoseconds. This, is the timescale of atomic processes. It is the order of magnitude of an electron's period orbiting the nucleus. In order to measure or to influence these processes, scientists have been striving to access these timescales for years.
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