A Moment of Science

The Extreme Powers of Ten, Temporal Edition

Femto and Attosecond sciences are investigating time scales more fleeting than we can possibly comprehend.

Clock

Photo: jay8085 (Flickr)

One attosecond is to one second as one second is to the age of the Universe.

The classic short film, Powers of Ten, brings to stunning relief both the vastness of the universe and the tininess of the subatomic realm.

As the movie zooms through 44 orders of magnitude, we find ourselves unable to truly fathom spatial-scales much different than our own. Even a trip to the Grand Canyon blows our minds, and it’s not really all that huge in the big scheme of things.

We are similarly astounded by extreme temporal scales. What does it mean that our galaxy is billions of years old or that our species has walked the earth for hundreds of millennia? Analogies are the best our feeble minds can muster.

Smaller, Faster Science

Over the past 150 years or so, technological and methodological innovation has enabled science to peer into ever shorter slices of time. The 19th century chronophotographic work of Eaweard Muybridge and Etienne Marey revealed details of animal locomotion that transpires too quickly for the naked eye to see.

With brighter lights and better cameras, shows like Discovery Channel’s Time Warp are able to transpose even the movement of a speeding bullet into a more human-friendly time scale. And what would Superbowl Sunday be without slow-motion replay?

But what if you wanted to capture a clear image of, say, an organic molecule during a chemical reaction? You’d need a ‘shutter speed’ in the quadrillionths of a second (or, ‘femtosecond‘) range!

Remarkably, Dr. Ahmed Zewail, winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in chemistry, managed to do just that using high intensity laser pulses. (See link below for a more thorough explanation of just how this was accomplished.)

The Future

More recently, Dr. Paul Corkum took things to the next level by actually imaging valence electrons during bonding!  Their critical movements transpire in mere attoseconds–billionths of a billionth of a second.

Beyond this, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures has only officially recognized two smaller prefixes: ‘zepto’ and ‘yocto’. The formation of atomic nuclei is an example of something occurring in the zeptosecond time-scale, and yoctoseconds best describe dynamics within hadrons like protons and neutrons themselves.

You can bet scientists will keep pushing into these incredible frontiers.

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Ben Alford

Ben Alford works in Indiana Public Media's online dimension and holds an M.A. from Indiana University Bloomington's History and Philosophy of Science department. When not vegetating in front of a computer screen or geeking out over a good book, he can be found outside exploring.

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