This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics challenges the human imagination. It’s about tracking the fastest processes in nature outside the atomic nucleus in real time: the movements of electrons.

This was made possible by Hungarian-born Ferenc Krausz, who conducts research in Garching near Munich, and the two French researchers Anne L’Huillier and Pierre Agostini, as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm announced.

View of extremely fast processes in atoms

They developed a way to generate extremely short flashes of light that can be used to measure the ultrafast processes in which electrons move or energy changes. “These movements initiate all molecular processes in living organisms and are ultimately responsible for the development of diseases at the most fundamental level,” Krausz told the German Press Agency. Regarding the price, he said: “I’m trying to realize that this is reality and not a dream.”

Fast-moving events merge into one another in people’s perception – just as a film consisting of still images is perceived as continuous movement. In the world of electrons, changes take place in a few tenths of attoseconds, according to the Nobel Committee.

An attosecond is a billionth of a billionth of a second (0.00000000000000001 seconds). “An attosecond is so short that there are as many of them in one second as there have been seconds since the creation of the universe,” it says. The universe is 13.8 billion years old.

The 61-year-old Krausz conducts research as a director at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics (MPQ) in Garching and at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. L’Huillier, born in 1958, works at the University of Lund (Sweden) and the now retired Agostini, born in 1941, works in the USA at the Ohio State University.

L’Huillier developed the basis for the research: in 1987 she sent infrared laser light through an inert gas. She discovered that special waves are created in the light. This is because the laser light interacts with the atoms of the gas and charges some electrons with energy, which is then emitted as light. In 2001, Agostini produced series of flashes of light with each pulse lasting about 250 attoseconds. Krausz isolated individual light pulses with a duration of about 650 attoseconds.

New areas of work emerged

“We can now open the door to the world of electrons,” said Eva Olsson, chairwoman of the Nobel Committee for Physics. “Attosecond physics offers us the opportunity to understand mechanisms controlled by electrons.” These include electronic devices such as computers or cell phones, as Krausz told the dpa.

Based on his research, new areas of work have emerged, such as high-resolution microscopy of living organisms, wrote Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in his congratulations on Tuesday. “In addition, they were able to develop lasers that are used in the diagnosis of eye diseases and cancer, thereby providing a great service to humanity.”

Krausz explained: “What my working group is currently most interested in is the use of interaction, selection with light for the early detection of diseases.”

An ongoing long-term study is particularly concerned with the early detection of lung, breast and prostate tumors. Blood samples from 10,000 participants who were initially healthy are regularly examined with infrared laser light in order to gain evidence of developing diseases. This will be compared with laboratory tests.

“The results are very promising,” said Krausz. “But I think it will probably be another five to 10 years before we have all the evidence that this is actually a reliable method.”

Call from Stockholm in class

L’Huillier – only the fifth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics – responded dutifully to science’s highest honor: “I taught,” said the nuclear physicist when asked where the news reached her. She was only able to answer the call on the third or fourth attempt during a break – and then continued the lesson. However, the last half hour of her lecture was “a bit difficult”.

The call also caught Krausz off guard. “If you expect something like that, then you’re actually just driving yourself crazy,” said the physicist, who is married, has two grown daughters and lists reading and sports as hobbies. “Free time is a scarce commodity when you’re working in research.”

This year’s most important award for physicists is worth a total of eleven million crowns (around 950,000 euros). Since it was first awarded in 1901, 5 female researchers and 219 researchers have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics – one of them, the American John Bardeen, even twice.

More Nobel Prizes

On Monday, the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to the Hungarian-born biochemist Katalin Karikó and the US immunologist Drew Weissman. They had done fundamental work on the development of mRNA vaccines against Corona, as stated in the statement by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

The winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be announced on Wednesday. The announcements for the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Nobel Peace Prize will follow on Thursday and Friday. The series ends next Monday with the Nobel Prize in Economics sponsored by the Swedish Reichsbank.

The ceremonial presentation of the awards traditionally takes place on December 10th, the anniversary of the death of the prize founder Alfred Nobel.