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Watching the electrons, and chemistry in motion

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The elusive goal of observing chemistry in action at the atomic level just took a quantum leap forward. Physicists using laser pulses have been able to observe for the first time—in real time—the outermost electrons of krypton atoms. As you may recall from high school chemistry it is these electrons that allow basic bonds to be made and broken—for example, the chemical binding of an oxygen atom with two hydrogen atoms to form water.

The key was using laser pulses lasting roughly 150 attoseconds (10 to the minus 18 of a second, or really, really, really, really short). First the physicists quickly ionized—or knocked one of the electrons off of—the krypton atoms with an infrared laser, according to a report summarizing the research in the August 5 issue of Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)  That "pump" was then followed rapidly by an ultraviolet laser probe that reveals the status of the hole that electron leaves behind. Do it a couple of times and you can find out exactly how the electron is moving and what it is getting up to, despite the fact that it is behaving as both a wave and a particle (what physicists like to call a wave-packet these days).

Such "attosecond transient absorption spectroscopy" as the physicists mellifluously call it should be able to observe—in real time—the formation of molecules, even compounds, and offers hope of showing how electrons actually behave when zipping through such a structure. That, in turn, might enable all sorts of new understandings of how chemistry works.

Of course, krypton itself is, generally speaking, chemically inert. So the method will have to be extended to other, more social atoms than the family of noble gases to really reveal something as well as to other phases, such as liquids and solids (something that seems feasible, according to the authors). Then scientists may finally see how and where a bond breaks or forms. But the technique has already shone a light on how an electron can still be entangled with the ion it has left behind—and might illuminate a path to a new understanding of the mechanisms behind chemical reactions.

Image: © Thorsten Naeser, MPQ Atoms of Krypton contained in gas cell that is placed into a vacuum chamber are exposed to an intense laser pulse to generate ions (blue jet). The interaction triggers coherent electron motion that is being captured by an attosecond pulse.

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  1. 1. Tlatoani 10:39 pm 08/4/2010

    electrons. . .
    we’ll try to understand ‘em but. . .

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  2. 2. dbtinc 8:28 am 08/5/2010

    " … quantum leap …" translated that must mean just the smallest movement (forward). I don’t know how this misuse of the word has come into the common vocabulary but it demonstrates a lack of rudimentary understanding. By the way, publication in SA is a further demonstration of this ignorance.

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  3. 3. dbiello 8:49 am 08/5/2010

    Fair enough, but I think it’s become part of the "common parlance" for good or for ill, perhaps because of the TV show?

    Plus, if you think about it from the perspective of an electron…

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  4. 4. frgough 11:23 am 08/5/2010

    A quantum leap is also a leap from one state to a different state without ever being anywhere in between.

    The wonderful thing about the English language is that, unlike some of its speakers, it’s not snobby and will borrow, modify or even make up words to express an idea. This is why it’s the most versatile language on the planet.

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  5. 5. Wayne Williamson 6:15 pm 08/5/2010

    exciting discovery….be interesting where this one leads…

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  6. 6. AtlantaTerry 4:27 pm 08/6/2010

    "quantum leap" LOL!!

    It is like folks trying to impress someone else and they stupidly use the term, "Steep Learning Curve" to say how difficult something was. If only they knew it Really means a maximum of return in a short amount of time!

    As radio commentator Neal Boortz would say, "Damn public schools…"

    Terry Thomas
    Atlanta, Georgia USA

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  7. 7. MickeyMudTurtle 1:42 am 08/7/2010

    "Quantum leap" is a contradiction in terms at best. The original expression was "quantum jump." Some ignoramus back in the day coined "quantum leap" from that, and ran with it. We’ve been stuck with this unfortunate clich ever since.

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  8. 8. Quinn the Eskimo 3:05 am 08/7/2010

    The electron, this November should be interesting.

    Besides, the Quantum Leap guy went on to captain the Enterprise. Not bad.

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  9. 9. Jympton 4:10 am 08/7/2010

    Well said!

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  10. 10. OneRyt 11:07 am 08/7/2010

    an interdimensional rock with a LOAD of energy in it rotates along… all of a sudden, one of the dimensions of energy experiences a MASSIVE EXPLOSION! Some quantum scientists just blew up Krypton’s version of New York.

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  11. 11. Ailblentyn 12:30 pm 08/7/2010

    It’s so interesting seeing how people read things and how resistant readers can be to playfulness in writing. The point of using the now meaningless ordinary-language phrase "quantum leap" in the context of actual quantum systems is that it’s witty.

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  12. 12. kilingtonskier 9:56 am 08/8/2010

    A very, very, very very small leap indeed. But also a GIANT leap in laser application. Nice article.

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  13. 13. jack.123 5:47 pm 08/8/2010

    What happened to the Heisenberg Principle?

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  14. 14. Weir 1:10 am 08/9/2010

    The apparent mysteries of QM are resolved in a discontinuous universe. Atoms everywhere are synchronously projected as a series of still particle frames in a holographic cosmic movie. EM radiation is the only action in each still frame. It originates from atoms and defines space by linking atoms up. A Primary Interval of Time is defined by each synchronous projection. All relative particulate motion occurs as jumps in relative position between frames. Atoms everywhere are oscillating between independent particle frames and a boundless quantum energy field that is timeless and orthogonal to the integrated fabric of space and time as we know it. Atomic matter is thus both a wave and a particle at the same time.

    The Primary Interval of Time is defined by the fact that the orbital angular momentum in the first orbit of hydrogen is zero. It is 1.519×10^-16 seconds consistent with the foundations of QM. We are synchronous participants in the movie. See related physics articles at

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  15. 15. GrahamRounce 8:52 am 08/9/2010

    Considering the title, "Watching the electrons, and chemistry in motion", I kind of expected to, uh, watch electrons and chemistry in motion. Where’s the movie?
    And, in any case, the movie isn’t in "real time", any more than a strobe light shows your car engine turning in real time.

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  16. 16. Prof. Van Helsing 10:58 pm 08/18/2010

    Yea, yea, yea, Quantum hurdle, vault, jump or leap, who cares? The real question I have is; what does Superman think of all this?

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  17. 17. themsp 4:01 pm 04/8/2012

    Is it science fiction to assume that some time in the far distant future, the unpredictable, computers will be so fast and AI programs so advanced that humanity will be able to check all possible combinations of four billion zeros and ones that are needed to store a video, 2 to the 4th billionth combinations and find out which ones make sense. (Assume that about four billion bits are needed for an hour’s movie of good quality, the number doesn’t matter) Did digital technology, the manipulation, storage and transmission of light and sound with numbers, made the expression: Everything is written and awaits the human being to discover them, sensible. All pictures, video, music, text, drawings are written, everything that has taken place and created and will take place and will be created. Incredibly huge but finite (?) like the universe. (?) Will humanity see Napoleon’s battles and the battle of Marathon and will also see how the human being evolved. If computers pick the combinations that make sence, men most probably, will understand what is fiction and what is real from the hints that has. Aaaand…..does this also mean that if one adjusted the frames of a video to check to be 10 to the 18nth power per second (I heard that electron movement can be detected with attosecond technology) will discover among the zillions of combinations the ones that show the electrons in their eternal dance of matter in the atom or how they engage in molecules.
    fay’s unKle

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