Julien Bertrand, Professor Paul Corkum and Sarah Golin

We’re looking at the microworld of atoms and molecules on its own time and space scale.  

Freeze frame physics

Imagine using the world's fastest laser light pulses to capture the first image of an electron orbiting a molecule ─ one of the smallest bits of matter in the universe.

Internationally renowned physicist Paul Corkum and his research team have done just that by using revolutionary ‘attosecond' laser pulses that allow them to see ─ and record in freeze frame fashion ─ chemical reactions as they occur in nature at the almost unimaginable speed of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second.

"Comparing one attosecond to one second is like comparing one second to the age of the universe," explains Professor Corkum, National Research Council-Canada Research Chair in Attosecond Photonics. "At this speed we're looking at the microworld of atoms and molecules on its own time and space scale."

Known as the "father" of attosecond molecular imaging, Corkum has earned numerous honours, including the 2008 National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada's prestigious John C. Polanyi Award for outstanding advances in natural science, for his research into how intense laser light pulses interact with atoms and molecules.

Corkum says attosecond imaging brings physicists a big step closer to controlling the movements of electrons as they speed along inside molecules. This manipulation of electrons in attosecond time could lead to breakthroughs in fields as diverse as computing, engineering and medicine.

Corkum's groundbreaking research at the world-class joint University of Ottawa/National Research Council Attosecond Science Laboratory is attracting talented doctoral and postdoctoral students from Canada, Europe, the United States, Japan and Israel, an indication, he says, of the "explosion" of international interest in attosecond science.

By Greg Higgins
Published: February 2009

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Last updated: 2012.11.27