How many times can you cut increments of time in half before you can't slice them anymore?
That's probably a question more fit for philosophers than scientists, but that hasn't stopped scientists from experimenting. In fact, breakthrough new research out of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany has recently cut time down to the shortest increment ever recorded. It's a stunning feat that will allow physicists to take time lapses which reveal the behavior of electrons, reports New Scientist.
The research, published in the journal Nature, successfully measured changes in an atom on the level of zeptoseconds. For the uninitiated, that's a trillionth of a billionth of a second. This gave the scientists such a detailed glimpse of the atom that they could essentially watch the entire process of an electron escaping from its orbit, which is something that has never been measured before.
This kind of precise measurement on such a minuscule level is significant because it will allow researchers to actually observe changes between quantum states.
"Using this information, we can measure the time it takes the electron to change its quantum state from the very constricted, bound state around the atom to the free state," explained Marcus Ossiander, one of the study's researchers.
For the study, researchers measured the photoelectric effect, a phenomenon first described by Einstein that occurs when photons strike an atom's electron, thus ejecting the electron from its orbit. This ejection happens so quickly that the effect has never been so directly witnessed before. Previously, researchers had only been able to measure in detail what happened after the electron fled its atom.
It may seem like a trivial curiosity, but being able to measure time in such fine detail could lead to breakthroughs in future technologies, such as with superconductivity and quantum computing.
"Many things are rooted in the interactions of individual electrons, but we handle them as a collective thing. If you really want to develop a microscopic understanding of atoms, on the most basic level, you need to understand how electrons deal with each other," said lead researcher Martin Schultze.