This recording time is 247 zeptoseconds. A zeptosecond is a trillion billionths of a second, or a decimal point, followed by 21 zeros and 1. Previously, researchers plunged into the zeptosecond range; in 2016, researchers reporting in the journal Natural physics used lasers to measure time in increments of up to 850 zeptoseconds. This accuracy is a major leap forward from the 1999 award-winning Nobel Prize, which for the first time measured time in femtoseconds, which are millionths of a billionth of a second.It takes femtoseconds for chemical bonds to break and form, but it takes zeptoseconds for light to travel through a single molecule of hydrogen (H2). To measure this very short journey, physicist Reinhard Dörner of the German University of Goethe and his colleagues shot X-rays from PETRA III at Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), a particle accelerator in Hamburg.
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The researchers adjusted the energy of the X-rays so that one photon or light particle knocked both electrons out of the hydrogen molecule. (A hydrogen molecule is made up of two protons and two electrons.) A photon bounces one electron away from a molecule and then another, somewhat like a pebble that skips the top of a pond. These interactions created a wave pattern called the interference pattern, which Dörner and his colleagues were able to measure with a tool called the Coon Target Recoil Ion Momentum Spectroscopy (COLTRIMS) reaction microscope. This tool is basically a very sensitive particle detector that can record extremely fast atomic and molecular reactions. The COLTRIMS microscope recorded both the interference pattern and the position of the hydrogen molecule during the interaction.
“Because we knew the spatial orientation of the hydrogen molecule, we used the interference of both electron waves to calculate exactly when the photon reached the first and when the second hydrogen atom,” Sven Grundmann, co-author of the study at the University of Rostock in Germany, he said in a statement.
That time? Two forty-seven zeptoseconds, and some space for mixing depends on the distance between the hydrogen atoms in the molecule at the exact moment the photon covered. The measurement essentially covers the speed of light within the molecule.
“We first noticed that the electron shell in the molecule does not react to light everywhere at the same time,” Dörner said in a statement. “The time lag occurs because the information within the molecule propagates only at the speed of light.”
The results were presented in detail on October 16 in the journal Science.
Originally posted on Live Science.