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Meet the zeptosecond, the shortest unit of time ever measured

A particle of light, called a photon (yellow arrow), produces electron waves out of an electron cloud (grey) of a hydrogen molecule (red: nucleus). The result of those interactions is what’s called an interference pattern (violet-white). The interference pattern is slightly skewed to the right, allowing researchers to calculate the time for the photon to get from one atom to the next.
A particle of light, called a photon (yellow arrow), produces electron waves out of an electron cloud (grey) of a hydrogen molecule (red: nucleus). The result of those interactions is what’s called an interference pattern (violet-white). The interference pattern is slightly skewed to the right, allowing researchers to calculate the time for the photon to get from one atom to the next.
(Image: © Sven Grundmann/Goethe University Frankfurt)

Scientists have measured the shortest unit of time ever: the time it takes a light particle to cross a hydrogen molecule. 

That time, for the record, is 247 zeptoseconds. A zeptosecond is a trillionth of a billionth of a second, or a decimal point followed by 20 zeroes and a 1. Previously, researchers had dipped into the realm of zeptoseconds; in 2016, researchers reporting in the journal Nature Physics used lasers to measure time in increments down to 850 zeptoseconds. This accuracy is a huge leap from the 1999 Nobel Prize-winning work that first measured time in femtoseconds, which are millionths of a billionths of seconds. 

It takes femtoseconds for chemical bonds to break and form, but it takes zeptoseconds for light to travel across a single hydrogen molecule (H2). To measure this very short trip, physicist Reinhard Dörner of Goethe University in Germany and his colleagues shot X-rays from the PETRA III at Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), a particle accelerator in Hamburg. 

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The researchers set the energy of the X-rays so that a single photon, or particle of light, knocked the two electrons out of the hydrogen molecule. (A hydrogen molecule consists of two protons and two electrons.) The photon bounced one electron out of the molecule, and then the other, a bit like a pebble skipping over the top of a pond. These interactions created a wave pattern called an interference pattern, which Dörner and his colleagues could measure with a tool called a Cold Target Recoil Ion Momentum Spectroscopy (COLTRIMS) reaction microscope. This tool is essentially 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 throughout the interaction.

"Since we knew the spatial orientation of the hydrogen molecule, we used the interference of the two electron waves to precisely calculate when the photon reached the first and when it reached the second hydrogen atom," Sven Grundmann, a study coauthor at the University of Rostock in Germany, said in a statement.

That time? Two hundred and forty-seven zeptoseconds, with some wiggle room depending on the distance between the hydrogen atoms within the molecule at the precise moment the photon winged by. The measurement is essentially capturing the speed of light within the molecule. 

"We observed for the first time that the electron shell in a molecule does not react to light everywhere at the same time," Dörner said in the statement. "The time delay occurs because information within the molecule only spreads at the speed of light."

The results were detailed Oct. 16 in the journal Science

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the value of the zeptosecond. It is a decimal point followed by 20 zeros and a 1, not 21 zeros. 

Originally published on Live Science.

  • David J Franks
    Can somebody please check, it says that a zeptosecond is 21 zeros followed by 1. I think a zeptosecond is 10 to the - 21 seconds, that would mean 20 zeros followed by a 1.:)

    UPDATE - I'm not going mad, the article has now been corrected, see footnote to the article. (I'm not going mad, I'm not mad, I'm not going mad, I'm not going mad, I'm not going mad) :)
    Reply
  • Wm. A. Garrett
    I am no expert, but I believe that in a sense you both are correct, as they are counting the zero to the left of the decimal point which generally (and logically) is not done.
    Reply
  • danr2222
    Wm. A. Garrett said:
    I am no expert, but I believe that in a sense you both are correct, as they are counting the zero to the left of the decimal point which generally (and logically) is not done.
    "or a decimal point followed by 21 zeroes and a 1"

    That is clearly not what they are doing. We may pretend to consider what they were thinking, but that is by no means betrayed by the wording.
    Reply
  • mntom
    I always thought a zeptosecond was the amount of time it took a New Yorker to honk the horn at you when the light turns green.
    Reply
  • kamikrazee
    Roughly the attention span of several well-known politicians.
    Reply
  • mhartry
    Just a minor correction. Hydrogen has 1 proton and 1 electron. Helium has 2 protons, 2 neutrons, and 2 electrons.
    Reply
  • Calerdine
    mhartry said:
    Just a minor correction. Hydrogen has 1 proton and 1 electron. Helium has 2 protons, 2 neutrons, and 2 electrons.
    The analysis discusses a hydrogen molecule, which consists of two hydrogen atoms; the molecule does contain two protons and two electrons. Upon first reading I made the same mistake. The are using molecules so they knock one electron out of each of the closely spaced atoms.,
    Reply
  • Tripd
    David J Franks said:
    Can somebody please check, it says that a zeptosecond is 21 zeros followed by 1. I think a zeptosecond is 10 to the - 21 seconds, that would mean 20 zeros followed by a 1.

    New user here, I just signed up to answer this after finding nothing on the net.

    From Wikimedia (what about that, a nice html table!)

    In words
    (long scale)In words
    (short scale)Prefix (Symbol)DecimalPowerof tenOrder of
    magnitudequadrillionthseptillionthyocto- (y)0.00000000000000000000000110−24−24trilliardthsextillionthzepto- (z)0.00000000000000000000110−21−21










    Table too big, but anyway, there's zepto! 21 places.
    Reply
  • David J Franks
    Tripd said:
    New user here, I just signed up to answer this after finding nothing on the net.

    From Wikimedia (what about that, a nice html table!)

    In words
    (long scale)In words
    (short scale)Prefix (Symbol)DecimalPowerof tenOrder of
    magnitudequadrillionthseptillionthyocto-0.00000000000000000000000110−24−24trilliardthsextillionthzepto- (z)0.00000000000000000000110−21−21










    Table too big, but anyway, there's zepto! 21 places.
    The article has now been corrected to contain 20 zeros after the decimal point followed by1. See footnote to the article. :)
    Reply
  • CVAngelo
    So just to clarify ... I'm almost 2 trillion trillion billion zeptoseconds old? Thank goodness for that. I thought I might have been over the hill.
    Reply