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Hydrocarbon molecule hit with laser pulses.

A hydrocarbon molecule’s reaction to laser pulses is captured for posterity. Credit: Matz Liebel

Optics and photonics

How to spy on a single molecule

Short laser bursts help to provide a real-time view of a molecule’s spectrum.

Observing the light that molecules emit and absorb, called spectra, is key to understanding chemical reactions. Now, physicists have found a way to observe spectral changes in an individual molecule at a scale of quadrillionths of a second.

To probe the spectrum of a single molecule, scientists usually rely on observing the photons that it emits, known as fluorescence. But fluorescence occurs too slowly for reactions to be monitored over time.

Matz Liebel and Niek van Hulst at the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona, Spain, and their colleagues used short laser pulses to interrupt a chemical reaction in molecules of the hydrocarbon dibenzoterrylene. By manipulating characteristics of the pulse, the researchers were able to observe the molecule’s spectrum through its fluorescence. They also varied the timing of the pulse to observe the reaction at many different points — and so build up a picture of the changing spectrum.

More Research Highlights...

A health worker puts on his personal protective equipment

A health worker in the Democratic Republic of the Congo prepares to care for people infected with Ebola virus during the 2018–20 outbreak, which prompted an extensive genomic analysis. Credit: John Wessels/AFP/Getty

Genomics

An unprecedented genomic analysis helped to curb an Ebola outbreak

Despite extraordinary challenges, scientists managed to sequence a high percentage of Ebola virus genomes from a deadly wave of infections.
Ember and thick smoke from bushfires reach Braemar Bay in New South Wales

Vast bush fires that swept across Australia at the end of 2019 and the start of 2020 filled the skies with enough smoke to warm a portion of the atmosphere. Credit: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty

Atmospheric science

Smoke from Australian fires turned up the heat in the southern sky

The catastrophic wildfires of late 2019 and early 2020 triggered a lingering temperature rise in a section of Earth’s lower atmosphere.
Visible and infrared images of the device in fully discharged and charged states

A display screen in its uncharged (top left) and charged (top right) state in visible light. The screen reflects one range of infrared wavelengths when uncharged (bottom left) and another range when charged (bottom right). Credit: M. S. Ergoktas et al./Nature Photon.

Optics and photonics

One screen, three images — some invisible in ordinary light

A graphene-based device can display several images simultaneously using a range of wavelengths.
Woman harvesting teff, Ethiopia

A farmer in Ethiopia harvests teff, a cereal. Small farms tend to have more-diverse landscapes than do sprawling industrial operations. Credit: Andia/Universal Images Group/Getty

Environmental sciences

Small farms outdo big ones on biodiversity — and crop yields

Large-scale farms account for most of the global food supply, but smallholdings protect species and are just as profitable.
Diagram of the nuclear composition and electron configuration of an atom of xenon-132.

A xenon atom’s electrons (grey circles; illustration) have been observed and even manipulated as they shifted their position. Credit: Carlos Clarivan/Science Photo Library

Atomic and molecular physics

An atom shuffles its electrons at ultrahigh speed — and is caught in the act

Scientists capture the movement of electrons in a xenon atom, a phenomenon that lasts for a fraction of one-billionth of a second.
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