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Anne L’Huillier new Frontiers of Knowledge Awardee

Anne L’Huillier. Photo: Kennet Ruona
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences goes in this fifteenth edition to Anne L’Huillier and her companions in the pioneering field of “attophysics”, Paul Corkum and Ferenc Krausz. Photo: Kennet Ruona

For her pioneering work in attosecond physics, Anne L’Huillier is one of the three new laureates of the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in basic science, a prize from the BBVA Foundation.

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences goes in this fifteenth edition to Anne L’Huillier (Lund University, Sweden), Paul Corkum (University of Ottawa, Canada) and Ferenc Krausz (Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, Germany), the three pioneers of “attosecond physics” or “attophysics” whose work has made it possible to observe subatomic processes unfolding over the shortest time scale captured by science.

The awardees, says the committee, “have shown how to observe and control the motion of electrons in atoms, molecules, and solids with ultrashort light pulses on time scales of about one hundred attoseconds. One attosecond is approximately the time for light to travel across an atom and is the natural scale for electronic motion in matter. This time scale was previously inaccessible to experimental studies due to the lack of light pulses with short enough duration.”

Thanks to attophysics, scientists can now directly observe natural processes that were once off-limits to the human eye. “It is a huge step to know that what we can imagine theoretically can now be tested experimentally. This interplay between experiment and theory is inspiring a lot of ideas,” remarked committee chairman Theodor W. Hänsch, Director of the Laser Spectroscopy Division at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Germany) and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

An ultrafast “camera” to “film” electrons in motion

The tools developed by L’Huillier, Corkum, and Krausz act like a camera with a shutter time so dizzyingly ultrafast that it can capture the movement of a hydrogen atom electron that takes 150 attoseconds to circle the nucleus.

The committee’s citation ends with a similar reflection: “These groundbreaking contributions have opened exciting new frontiers in different areas, including atomic physics, photochemistry, and materials science.”

The findings that sowed the seeds of attophysics

In 1987, Anne L’Huillier participated in the discovery that laid the groundwork of the attophysics field. When working as a researcher at the Saclay Nuclear Research Centre near Paris, she studied what would happen if atoms were subjected to short, intense laser pulses of infrared light. She expected to see fluorescent light, but was surprised to find that the atoms appeared to be emitting light waves at very high frequencies, that is, extremely high-energy X-rays.

L’Huillier and her colleagues had achieved a very high frequency through the interaction of laser light pulses with matter. “It was truly fascinating; the first step toward generating an attosecond pulse. And I have never stopped working in the field, contributing to different aspects of the body of research.”

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards recognize and encourage world-class research and artistic creation, prizing contributions of broad impact for their originality and significance. The name of the scheme denotes both research work that successfully enlarges the scope of our current knowledge – pushing forward the frontiers of the known world – and the meeting and overlap of different disciplinary areas.

The Frontiers Awards distinguish fundamental disciplinary or interdisciplinary advances in basic, natural, and social sciences and technology, alongside creative activity of excellence in the music and opera of our time. Honors are also reserved for two vital areas of environmental research: climate change and ecology and conservation biology. This year the list is joined by the new category of Humanities and Social Sciences, alternating annually between these two domains, with the award in the current edition devoted to the Humanities.

About the Frontiers of Knowledge Awards (external website)

About the BBVA Foundation (external website)


Anne L’Huillier's profile in the Lund University Research Portal