Researchers have glimpsed, momentarily, an electron’s-eye view of the world.
They have succeeded for the first time in tracking an electron leaving the vicinity of an atom as the atom absorbs light. In a way akin to taking “snapshots” of the process, they were able to follow how each electron’s unique momentum changed over the incredibly short span of time it took to escape its host atom and become a free electron.
In the journal Nature Physics, the researchers write that following electrons in such fine detail constitutes a first step toward controlling electrons’ behavior inside matter—and thus the first step down a long and complicated road that could eventually lead to the ability to create new states of matter at will.
The technique the researchers used is called RABBITT, or Reconstruction of Attosecond Beating By Interfering Two-photon Transitions, and it involves hitting the atoms in a gas with light to reveal quantum mechanical information. It’s been around for nearly 15 years, and has become a standard procedure for studying processes that happen on very short timescales.
One immediate consequence is that researchers can now classify the quantum mechanical behavior of electrons from different atoms.