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World record for smallest time measurement broken



Back in 1999, the Egyptian chemist Ahmed Zewail was awarded the Nobel Prize for measuring the rate at which molecules change their shape and founded femtochemistry in the process. His measurements were made in femtoseconds, where a femtosecond is equal to 0.0000000000000000001 seconds or 10-15 seconds.

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Now, almost two decades later, nuclear physicists at Goethe University, led by Professor Reinhard Dörner, have calculated a process shorter than femtoseconds for the first time ever: measuring how long it takes for a photon to cross a hydrogen molecule.

This is the shortest time period ever measured and amounts to approx. 247 zeptose seconds (one trillionth of a billionth of a second or 1

0-21 seconds). To achieve this, the researchers irradiated a hydrogen molecule with X-rays from the X-ray flash source PETRA III at Hamburg’s accelerator facility DESY. They set it up so that one photon was sufficient to push both electrons out of the hydrogen molecule.

The researchers then calculated the interference pattern of the first ejected electron using the COLTRIMS reaction microscope. This device was partially developed by Dörner, and it makes the super-fast reaction processes in atoms and molecules visible.

“Knowing the spatial orientation of the hydrogen molecule, we used the interference of the two electron waves to calculate exactly when the photon reached the first and when it reached the second hydrogen atom,” Sven Grundmann explained in a statement whose doctoral dissertation was the basis for the resulting scientific article published in Science.

“And this is up to 247 zeptose seconds, depending on how far apart in the molecule the two atoms were from the perspective of light.”

“We observed for the first time that the electron shell of a molecule does not respond to light everywhere at the same time. The time delay occurs because the information in the molecule only spreads at the speed of light. With this finding, we have expanded our COLTRIMS technology to another application, “said Professor Reinhard Dörner.




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