As we've discussed from time to time on this site, quantum physics is some mind-bending stuff. At its heart, it is a study of the smallest particles known—stuff smaller than even atoms. And yet, it is a key to understanding some of the most massive phenomena in the universe, from quasars and pulsars to supernovas and black holes.
Sure, even some of the most brilliant minds on the planet struggle a bit to understand quantum physics, but that itself is understandable. After all, how can you understand something that you can't measure? Quantum particles are not only super-tiny, they also do things absurdly fast. Like, seriously, don't even try understanding how quickly they move ... and that's where the attoclock comes in!
Hold on one attosecond!
So first off: the attosecond. This is a micro-measure of time that equals one-billionth of one-billionth of second. What?
When electrons perform movements inside an atom—especially this fancy thing called a quantum leap—they do it within about 100 attoseconds. So, like, a ten-millionth of a billionth of a second. And the attoclock? This device is able to measure that small of a moment in time. Think of it as a device that does for time what an electron microscope does for size. And just as those microscopes reveals an entire world of particles too small for us to see, the attoclock helps us measure movements too quick for us to perceive.
And how can scientists use such a device? We're glad you asked...
Molecular movie stars
Recently, scientists at labs like the SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) at Stanford University in California have developed technology that allowed them to make what they call 'molecular movies'. These are a series of images captured on an attosecond timescale that show the movements within atoms and molecules. The one problem? Without a way to accurately measure this tiny timescale, scientists couldn't prove exactly what they were looking at in the images.
But the attoclock is that device. Now scientists can measure exactly when each picture in a molecular movie occurred. They can see an accurate version of how atoms and molecules move, combine, break apart, and more.
Is this cutting edge science? You bet!
Are we barely able to understand what we're writing about right now? Yep!
But one thing we do know for sure? The attoclock is one groundbreaking device.