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March, 2004 - Nr. 3


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Faster than the speed of light

   TWIG - A team effort by German and Austrian scientists has produced what amounts to the most accurate stop-watch in the world.

With the ability to measure the speed of electrons to the nearest attosecond, a unit of measure equivalent to one quintillionth of a second. In other words, the new technology can produce a measure of time accurate down to the nineteenth decimal place in a fraction of a second. Scientists now have the ability to observe the inner movements of some of the smallest subatomic particles.

The research teams of Dr. Ulrich Heinzmann of the University of Bielefeld and Dr. Ferenc Krausz of the Technical University of Vienna presented their work — which tracks the movement of electrons by bombarding atoms with laser light — in the journal "Nature."

The vibration of atoms — an almost unimaginably fast movement — proceeds at a snail’s pace compared to the speed of electrons whizzing around their nuclei. With the new technology, the group has been able to estimate that it takes an electron 150 attoseconds to travel the circumference of an atom.

The group’s research should have far-reaching consequences for the development of new types of X-rays. Using attoscience to understand these processes, Krausz says, it may be possible to build a compact X-ray laser to study molecular structures in materials science and biology.

Their research is being funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.
Republished with permission from "The Week in Germany"


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