Ahmed Zewail and his group at Caltech are the kings of the very, very short time scale. For many years now, he's been using extremely short laser pulses to accomplish a long list of previously unheard-of results in spectroscopy. (A non-specialist wouldn't go far wrong by thinking of him as a molecular-scale Harold Edgerton.) His work has not gone unrecognized.
And now there's a fighting chance that he and his people have recently accomplished something that would be worthy of a second Nobel: UEM, for Ultrafast Electron Microscopy. They're taking electron microscope snapshots, one trillionth of a second at a time.
And what is this technique good for? Well, electron microscopy has long been used for imaging all sorts of materials and biological samples. Fast freezing of the samples has revealed an extraordinary amount of information in the past, and Zewail's new method basically allows this to happen in real time, at room temperature, under normal conditions. The energies required to do it aren't huge, and it's quite likely that we'll be able to get useful data without destroying delicate targets. We could end up with extreme slow-motion movies of molecular processes, imaged at electron-diffraction resolutions. We're actually going to be able to watch nanotechnology experiments as they happen.
We'd be able to see catalyst molecules moving and rearranging as they do their work, and watch the shifting environment of metal atoms inside enzyme active sites. Subtle changes in crystal structures, happening too fast for us to follow, would become clear. We could conceivably see cell membranes flex and shift as ligands bind to their embedded receptors, and see processes inside cells that no one has ever been able to observe or even suspected were there. People in completely unrelated branches of science are going to be climbing over each other to get access to these machines.
I've never met Prof. Zewail, but his paper isn't the work of a retiring personality. Its abstract states that ". . .the long sought after but hitherto unrealized quest for ultrafast electron microscopy has been realized." That's inelegantly phrased (the quest wasn't the thing that was sought after, for one thing), but I take his point. The concluding section echoes Watson and Crick, surely on purpose:
". . .even biological changes at longer times have their origin in the early atomic motions. It should be readily apparent that such dynamical evolution is critical to function. It does not escape our notice that UEM is a significant advance for this purpose. . .we foresee the emergence of new vistas in many fields, from materials science to nanoscience and biology."
No, he's not a modest man. But this discovery isn't something to be modest about. It isn't bragging if you can do what you say.
(Want more details? This is wandering off into physics, but the fast laser pulses generate electrons through the photoelectric effect. They hit the photocathode of the electron microscope, which is made of the rather exotic material lanthanum hexaboride. One of the keys to getting this to work was to use pulse energies that deliver about one electron per wave packet. That allows the microscope to focus them - Zewail points out that their earlier attempts generated larger "bunches" of electrons which were difficult to focus, and whose pulses broadened out due to the electrons repulsing each other's negative charge. The delicate touch was crucial. Of course, none of this would do much good without modern scintillators and CCD chips, which can detect single electrons after they pass through the samples. For the real fanatic, Zewail's paper is in PNAS 102, 7069.)