Word of the day: femtosecond

This is an unimaginably small unit of time. One femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second.

I came across the term in an obituary of the Nobel prize-winning scientist Ahmed Zewail which opens as follows:

“Before 1990, all students of chemistry and adjacent sciences were taught that it was impossible to determine the precise atomic rearrangements that occurred during the course of any chemical reaction at the instant when some chemical bonds are ruptured and others formed. The timescale for such events is around femtoseconds, and one femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second.

The major contribution made by Ahmed Zewail, who has died aged 70, was to break through this barrier. At the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), he developed ultrafast lasers which delivered pulses of femtosecond duration, thus making it possible to “photograph” the fundamental process of bond rupture and bond formation. For this outstanding work, he was awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1999.”


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