Zeptosecond: Smallest Piece of Time Ever

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Electron escaping a helium atom (M. Ossiander (TUM) / M. Schultz (MPQ))

Meet the Zeptosecond, the Smallest Slice of Time Yet Recorded

by Jason Daley Smithsonian.com

Don’t even try to capture a zeptosecond using a run-of-the-mill stopwatch. This tiny slice of time is a fraction of a second—so small it is equal to a single number one sitting 21 places behind the decimal point, a trillionth of a billionth of a second​, reports Rebecca Boyle at New Scientist. And researchers at the Max Plank Institute in Germany finally measured minute changes within an atom on the zeptosecond scale.

The researchers accomplished this feat while studying the so-called photoelectric effect in action. Albert Einstein described this tricky quirk of light in 1905, later winning the Nobel Prize in Physics for his explanation of this defining concept. The photoelectric effect shows that light can act as both a wave and a particle. When a photon, or a particle of light, of a certain energy strikes an electron, it can free the electron from its atom. The photon ejects the electron in a process called photoemission, the basis behind solar energy.

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