Flash Forward: Using Light to Study Electrons, Atoms and Molecules
Probing the secrets of atoms and molecules is one of the most difficult-and important-challenges in all of science. That's because these things, although infinitesimally small, form the very building blocks of the entire world as we know it.
In fact, some things, like sub-atomic particles, are so tiny that we've found them nearly impossible to observe. In the past, the main method used to understand atoms has been to smash them together and see what happens. It's a bit like throwing a baseball at a crowded auditorium, and determining what's inside by the noises you hear.
As Canada Research Chair in Attosecond Photonics, Dr. Paul Corkum is developing new ways to observe atoms, molecules and other tiny particles. To do this, he is building an incredibly fast camera and flash.
The flash operates using electrons which travel at one-tenth the speed of light. If a plane were travelling this fast, it would circle the globe in just one second.
Unlike traditional cameras, which operate in fractions of a second, these speedy electrons allow Corkum to use a far more precise measure of time: the attosecond. One attosecond is one billionth of one billionth of a second. Because it takes just 25 attoseconds for an electron to circle an atom, Corkum's plan is to design the first 25-attosecond flashbulb.
In order to create this flashbulb, he will use a laser pulse to pull an electron away from an atom, and then force it back into a collision, which produces an attosecond burst of light. Using these flashes, he will make "movies" of chemical and biological processes in which the actors are electrons, atoms, molecules, and light.
The movie might observe what happens when a molecule undergoes a simple reaction. The laser pulse could also prod the molecules and use the movie to measure how the molecule responds. Ultimately Corkum aims to observe and control objects in the world of atoms and molecules, just as we observe and control objects in the ordinary world in which we live.
Traditionally, understanding the nature of tiny molecules and atoms has been incredibly expensive and difficult. Corkum's research will provide a new, cost-effective way to learn more about these basic building blocks of matter and life, quite literally shedding light on the fundamental elements of matter.