Dining Cars Have Been Around Since the 1800s. Now They Face Extinction.

Express Restaurant

Hulton ArchiveGetty Images

Traveling long distances by rail may be an increasingly old-fashioned mode of transportation in the U.S., but there’s still a sizable sect of passenger railroad diehards. And as some long-standing train traditions are in danger of disappearing, the devotees won’t go down without a fight.

Last month, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) announced it would be phasing out the dining car service on many of its long-distance trains, chalking up the change to an Act of Congress under H.R. 749, the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015. By cutting the dining cars and staff in favor of more “flexible” dining options, Amtrak estimates it will save about $2 million a year, according to the Washington Post.

You can partially blame millennials for the move.

“Some people really like [the dining car] and view it as sort of a nostalgic train experience,” Peter Wilander, who leads Amtrak’s customer experience, told the Post. “Some people, especially our new millennial customers, don’t like it so much. They want more privacy, they don’t want to feel uncomfortable sitting next to [strangers].”

Under Amtrak’s new direction, it’s out with the classic dining car—complete with meal reservations, white linens, steak dinners, and friendly conversations with fellow passengers—and in with a complimentary menu called “Enhanced Flexible Dining” for sleeping car passengers (but not coach), consisting of pre-packaged meals prepared off-site, meant to be eaten in individual rooms. Coach passengers, meanwhile, can buy limited food items from the cafe cars or pack their own snacks.

On October 1, Amtrak officially instituted the changes on the East Coast’s Cardinal, City of New Orleans, Crescent, and Silver Meteor. The traditional dining service will remain—for now—on California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, Texas Eagle, as well as the Auto Train between Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida.

Since Amtrak made the announcement, however, some rail passenger advocates have pledged to take a stand. As of this writing, more than 12,600 people have signed a Change.org petition urging Congress and Amtrak to keep the dining car service on all long-distance trains.

The petition comes from Gene Arenson, a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. As the east coast changes take effect, Arenson writes, “a 100 year tradition of meals served in the dining cars will end; the mid-west [sic] and west coast trains are sure to follow. And so will national rail travel as we know it, unless we speak up and be heard.”

The comments on the petition reinforce the fans’ passion for a beloved custom.

“We cannot let an icon of American railroading fade into history. After all, the Dining Car is a true part of the passenger railroad experience,” writes Coleen Williams from Rockwell, Texas.

“Amtrak isn’t so much about the destination, it’s about the journey,” writes Alan Tipping, of Mint Hill, North Carolina. “After all, if I want to get there quickly, I’d fly. The dining car is the best part of the ride,” says Alan Tipping from Mint Hill, North Carolina.

Sandra Jones from Woodland, California says, “The dining car is the highlight of my train travel. So many of the niceties our parents and grandparents enjoyed have been eliminated. It would be tragic if future generations missed out on the dining car experience and food that isn’t served on a foam tray with a plastic fork.”

Arenson and co. are hoping to collect 15,000 signatures to convince Amtrak to reverse course or, at the very least, give coach passengers the option to buy the same flexible dining foods as the sleeping car passengers.

Behold the Molecular Pinball Machine

molecular switch

Radboud University

There’s always an increasing need for materials that can show both strength and flexibility. Scientists have discovered one that can significantly change shape at small temperature variations without breaking.The team hopes that, with further control, the material’s crystals could be used in medical devices.

When organic materials repeatedly change shape, they usually do so through breaking. So a material that can alter its shape and remain whole has a number of potential advantages and uses. It’s a good thing, then, that physicists at Radboud University in the Netherlands and Nankai University in China have discovered such a material by accident.

“I tend to call it the ‘molecular pinball machine,'” says Theo Rasing, professor of Spectroscopy of Solids and Interfaces at Radbou, in a press statement. The organic crystal material, known as 4-DBpFO, was able to prove its shape-changing abilities when scientists made it throw a glass bead at high speeds. 4-DBpFO delivered a force equivalent to 10,000 times its own weight.

According to the scientists, 4-DBpF0 crystals have unique properties, like the ability to significantly change shape at small temperature variations around 180 degrees Celsius without breaking. That means the material could be used as fluid pumps on “labs on a chip” (LOCs), often seen in medical devices that can allow diabetics to measure their blood sugar, or even nano pills, which could measure a person’s body temperature from the inside.

Right now, many LOCs are still at the proof-of-concept stage. “The problem with current organic crystals is that such changes in shape due to temperature, for example, quickly break the material,” Rasing says. The team hopes its material can change that.

“Our discovery of these properties in this material was actually a stroke of luck,” says Yulong Duan, a Ph.D. candidate and the first author of the study. “We were mainly studying these materials for their interesting optical properties, but when we changed the temperature under the microscope, the crystal suddenly shot away.”

Rather than breaking, the materials molecules slide across each other.

Next up, the scientists want to study if the effect can be shifted to lower temperatures through changes in the molecular structure. After discovering the material by accident, they want to see if it can be heated and cooled in a controlled manner.

Buy the New Nintendo Switch and Get a Free $25 Amazon Gift Card



While we’ve seen plenty of deals on Nintendo Switch bundles before, this is the first one with the new Switch with improved battery life. You can get the console with red and blue joy cons from Amazon now for the regular price of $300, but the online retailer will also throw in a free $25 gift card with your purchase. Plus, the gift card comes in an actual physical envelope, so you can choose whether to gift it to someone else or use it yourself on Nintendo Switch games or a Pro controller.

Nintendo Switch HAC-001(-01) with $25 Amazon Gift Card
Nintendo amazon.com


Like the original Switch, this console features three modes in one, including handheld, TV, and tabletop mode. It’s pretty much identical to the first model, but you’ll surely notice a difference once you start playing thanks to the improve battery life of 4.5 to 9 hours, depending on what game you’re playing.

If the Switch is on the wish list of someone you love (or perhaps your personal list) for the holidays, now may be the best time to buy, so you can get two gifts in one. Of course, a new Switch is nothing without some great games to play, so we also found some of our favorite on sale at Amazon for up to 50 percent off.

Nintendo Switch Lite: A Stripped Down Switch Is Actually the World’s Greatest Game Boy

Nintendo Switch Lite

Trevor Raab

Switch Lite
Nintendo amazon.com


If you buy a Nintendo Switch, any version, you’ll be happy. It’s one of the most fun, rewarding, well-designed piece of consumer tech of the past several years. I bought one in early 2017 on the eBay gray market (when Nintendo couldn’t keep them in stock), and I haven’t gone more than a few days without playing. A flight, train, or bus ride without a Switch? Unconscionable.

If you’re like me, and you play—or plan to play—almost exclusively in handheld mode, alone, without multiplayer, then the new Switch Lite is the one to get. It’s more portable and costs less. This is a Game Boy for the year 2020, including hard-button controls that phone games just can’t replicate.

Here are the differences between the Lite and the regular Switch that will matter to most people:

The Lite’s screen is 5.5 inches compared to the original’s 6.2 inches (which is less dramatic than it sounds. Small text is still legible, and graphics still look great).The joysticks/buttons (Joy Cons) are permanently connected to the body. The whole thing feels rigid and solid.The Lite will not connect to a TV. This is handheld-only console.Battery life falls roughly between the original first-gen Switch, and the updated version. I averaged about four hours of play, longer than my first-gen model.

Two other differences worth mentioning for anyone currently sporting a regular Switch: the Lite lacks a light sensor, so you have to manually adjust the brightness. And sound without headphones is straight up tinny—noticeably worse than on the original model. And unfortunately, like all Switches, the Lite lacks Bluetooth connectivity, a bummer if you exclusively rock AirPods or Bose over-ears.

But despite the cut corners and missing features, best part of the original Switch remains the games. So many are so engrossing that you are indifferent to the just-ok graphics or lack of smooth online play—both of which are better on an Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Switch exclusives like Breath of the Wild, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and adaptations like Skyrim or Dark Souls can engross you for dozens of hours, either in marathon sessions or in opportunistic increments. I haven’t even had time to go deep into Link’s Awakening, Astral Plane, or Untitled Goose Game, all of which are also brilliant.

Point being, the Switch does great single-player games that fit perfectly into a handheld console.

The only people who should buy the original flagship Switch for $100 more are households where this console is going to be the only console around and multiplayer is a must.

If you already have a Switch and maybe you’re considering the Lite as a more portable satellite console, you might want to reconsider because Nintendo makes this difficult. Even if you have a membership to Nintendo Switch Online, which syncs your game saves to the cloud, you have to manually de-authorize your original Switch, and set up the Lite as the primary console. Otherwise, your device will have to constantly connect to Wi-Fi, so Nintendo can make sure you’re authorized to play the game you’ve purchased—a major annoyance for a console meant to be your main Switch.

But if you’re looking for your first Switch or buying one for someone else, the Lite is a no brainer. It does the majority of what makes the Switch such a wonderful product, and anyone who values the details that makes the other model cost $100 more probably already owns one. The Switch Lite once again reinforces one of the core commandments of great gadget design: Simpler is better.

Nintendo Switch Lite

Trevor Raab

The Machine That Uses Algae to Eat Carbon Dioxide

hypergiant industies

Hypergiant Industries

Carbon dioxide is the leading cause of global warming. Hypergiant Industries wants to use algae boxes to solve the problem. Algae plays an crucial role in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen naturally in the ocean. But it’s a challenge to replicate for human purposes.The device is still a prototype, and there’s no timeline for production. But Hypergiant is going to make the plans open-source soon.

The problems of global warming are well-documented and focus mainly on carbon dioxide. A new company, Hypergiant Industries of Texas, has unveiled a prototype of what it calls an Eos Bioreactor, a box that uses A.I. to capture and sequester carbon from the atmosphere using algae.

When it comes to lowering carbon dioxide, Hypergiant sees a space somewhere in between reducing consumption and planting trees. “It felt like there had to be more options” than those two, says Kristina Libby, Vice President of Future Science and Research at Hypergiant. (Full disclosure: Libby is a contributor to Popular Mechanics.)

Trees are traditionally seen as a crucial factor to help stave off global warming, due to their ability to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. This reliance has been historically useful, of course, but threats to trees en masse—like the Amazon’s recent spate of fires—can show how delicate humanity’s reliance on forests could become.

It’s not just trees that ingest carbon dioxide, however. Most breathable air in the world originates from the ocean, “where high levels of nutrients fertilize large blooms of algae,” writes Scott Denning, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University.

It’s that process on which Hypergiant wants to capitalize.

“The research on algae is incredibly compelling,” Libby tells Popular Mechanics, “both on the amount of carbon it sequesters as well as its rate of growth. And then, in looking at that, we realized that the biggest problems in algae are things we can solve with artificial intelligence. Let’s dive in there and see if we can make that a reality.”

Those problems comes with the growth rate of algae. Algae can grow rapidly, but if a group is trying to contain the plant within a tank, that’s a problem. These things, Libby says, “are hard to control.”

Using A.I. to augment light, temperature, and air flow, the team believes it can optimize algae’s intake of carbon dioxide while simultaneously slowing the plant’s rapid growth.


Sargassum seaweed—algae—on a beach in Florida earlier this year. One of the difficulties of containing algae is its rapid growth.


The prototype bioreactor is 3′ x 3′ x 3′, and holds 55 gallons of water and algae. “Algae wants CO2 and light,” the company explains on its website. “The light can be from the sun, or in this case, artificial light. The algae and water are pumped through a series of tubes to maximize their exposure to light sources lining the inside of the Reactor.”

Inside the reactor, the algae absorbs the carbon dioxide and in the process creates a biomass, essentially dried algae. In the oceans, dried algae has a crucial role: It sinks to the bottom of the ocean and creates food for microorganisms. The company says the algae biomass can then be “harvested and processed to create fuel, oils, nutrient-rich high-protein food sources, fertilizers, plastics, cosmetics, and more.”

The Hypergiant team claims the device is 400 times more effective than trees at carbon sequestration.

“With the first generation Eos, we have precise control of every aspect of the algae’s environment and life cycle,” Ben Lamm, CEO and founder, tells Fast Company. “It’s a photobioreactor, but it’s also an experimentation platform. We’ll be using this platform to better understand the environment that best suits biomass production under controlled circumstances, so that we can better understand how to design reactors for the variety of environmental conditions we’re going to encounter in the wild.”

The company has a local vision for the biogenerators. Rather than (at least at first) a field of the algae boxes in an energy grid, Hypergiant envisions HVAC units, close to exhaust and industrial pipes, breathing in the carbon dioxide from a office building.

According to the International Energy Agency, buildings and building construction account for 36 percent of global final energy consumption and nearly 40 percent of the world’s total direct and indirect CO2 emissions.

But a prototype is still just a prototype, and Libby says the company has no plans to start selling quite yet. The next step, in spring 2020, will be to make the design for the algae boxes open-source and see what the world will make of them.

This Is the New Mind-Bending Surface Neo (and Everything Else Microsoft Just Announced)


Microsoft has introduced two new foldable devices, the Surface Neo and the Surface Duo, directly competing with Samsung’s Galaxy Fold phone.To compete with Apple’s AirPods, Microsoft has introduced its own wireless earbuds.Fast charging will allow new devices like the Microsoft Surface 7 to charge.

Seven years ago, Microsoft launched the first Surface.

The devices have come a long way since then, culminating in the new tablet-sized Surface Neo and phone-sized Surface Duo (a swipe at Samsung’s new Galaxy Fold).

“We’re excited to see what you’ll do with dual-screen devices,” said Panos Panay, chief product officer at Microsoft. He also is looking forward to seeing what developers will do with these new platforms. The Duo will run on Google’s software for Android and the Neo will run on the latest Windows 10X, who well the two software ecosystems will play together remains to be seen.

The Neo is 5.6-mm thin and weighs 655 grams and it’s surrounded by Gorilla glass. The Duo is smaller and fits right in your pocket.

An illustration of the Surface Neo in action.

Most importantly, it has a 360-degree hinge with 60 cables as thin as strands of hair to bring the two 9-inch screens together. And the team has been designing and prototyping the Surface Neo for years.

To build upon that revolutionary hardware, the company is releasing Microsoft Windows 10X, which allows you to “span” an application across both screens on the Neo, or use the screens like two separate tablets. It almost mirrors the way we sometimes have two desktop monitors at our desks for work to increase productivity.

With that software, the screen is responsive if you want the screens stacked vertically, instead. That helps you to switch up your posture, whether you’re at your desk, in bed or at the airport.

When a keyboard is attached to one of the screens, a small portion of it still has a useable window.

The Surface Neo and Duo won’t be available until the holiday season in 2020.

Today we shared where Surface and Microsoft are…and where we’re going. I hope you liked the products. We can’t wait to see what you do with them #MicrosoftEvent #SurfacePro7 #SurfaceLaptop3 #SurfaceEarbuds #SurfaceNeo #SurfaceDuo pic.twitter.com/UIoW8SDPNN

— Panos Panay (@panos_panay) October 2, 2019

The Other Surface Devices Coming This Year

Outside of the foldable—by far the most exciting part of the event—Microsoft also unveiled its new Surface Laptop 3, which includes minute new details like an always-on display, silent typing and a 20 percent larger trackpad than the last Surface Laptop.

Even more significantly, there’s a removable hard drive and the entire top, including the keyboard, can slide right off with the right tools, making repairs far easier—but don’t just rip this apart at home.

“It is two times faster than the product that is already the highest consumer rated product,” Panay said of the new Intel chip inside. He said it makes the computer three times more powerful than the MacBook Air.

A 15-inch model was introduced for those that want more screen for productivity purposes. It’ll cost $1,200 when it becomes available on October 22. The 13-inch model will run you $1,000.

Fast charging is also new. You can power up the new Surface to 80 percent in under an hour, at about the same rate as a mobile processor charging inside a smartphone. This feature will be available across the Surface product line, Panay said.

The new Microsoft Surface Pro 7 was also unveiled. It includes an improved pen and studio microphones that make it easier to utilize speech-to-text on both the Surface Pro and the new Surface Laptop. It’s available for pre-order today and starts at $750.



In a direct hit against Apple and Sony, a set of new Microsoft Surface Earbuds have up to 24 hours of battery life. Design-wise, they look like white circles in your ear, rather than hanging down like the AirPods. You can change a song, the volume or skip with hand gestures, too. They’ll be available at an unspecified time later this year for $250.

So yes—most of the leaks were right and even Panay admitted that. There was a new Surface, two Surface Laptops and a new version of Windows, among the predictions. But nobody expected two foldable devices would be announced at the same time.

Now that’s how you do a new product release event.

Did Microsoft Finally Make a Phone Worth Buying?


Windows Phone is a distant memory for most people. Forever stuck in third place behind iOS and Android, Microsoft was never able to fire up app developers and consumers to mount an effective counterattack against its competitors.

It died with a whimper.

The Microsoft Surface Duo in action.

But today Microsoft mounted a comeback of sorts, introducing the Microsoft Surface Duo, and there are a lot of things going on here. Microsoft’s hardware chief Panos Panay made sure to identify the new phone/tablet wunderkind as specifically a Surface device, inline with its years-long quest to combine all the tech in our lives with gadgets like the Surface Pro 2-in-1s, the Surface Laptop, and the newly-announced Surface Neo.

But this device finally tries to tackle the smartphone, that indispensable communication device that rules our lives. Like other emerging dual-screen smartphones (basically just the Galaxy Fold), the Surface Duo works on a 360-degree hinge, so you can use it like a widescreen tablet—with two 5.6-inch displays working together—or a slightly beefy smartphone.

But the real innovation is its apps. Windows Phone could never even get close to the full breadth of apps available on Android, so Microsoft decided that if you can’t beat ’em—join ’em. So the Surface Duo runs on Android and all the software goodies that come with that partnership. In addition to Google Play store, the Duo will likely get Microsoft-optimized apps redesigned for the Duo—and Microsoft owns lots of apps.

Panos Panay shows off a working prototype of the Surface Duo.

So could this be the first phone Microsoft’s ever made that just might entice the masses? Maybe. While it won’t be released until late 2020, there are a lot of details we don’t know yet, including the price. If the Samsung Galaxy Fold is any indication, the Surface Duo—and also the Neo—will likely be an eye-poppingly expensive. It’s also unclear how this device, running on Android, will worth with other Microsoft devices, running on Windows 10 or the newly announced Windows 10x.

There’s also a well-known tech tip that it’s usually worth buying a later version of any radically new device. Surface Pro was good, Surface Pro 3 was much better. The Pixel smartphone was good, the Pixel 3 was much better. The Apple Watch was good, the Apple Watch 3 was much better, and so on and so on.

But for now, it’s just exciting to see Microsoft finally reanimating the long dead corpse of Windows Phone.

Hyundai Is Stepping Into the Air Taxi Race

hyundai american headquarters


Hyundai is entering the increasingly crowded world of urban air mobility (UAM) with a new hire from NASA. Jaiwon Shin will be tasked with getting the company up to speed with competitors ranging from Uber to Honeywell, as Hyundai expects the flying car industry represents a global opportunity.While some governments have expressed enthusiasm about the idea, there are many logistical problems that remain at the core.

Hyundai is entering the still mostly hypothetical world of flying cars, announcing a new head of its newly formed Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Division. Jaiwon Shin, formerly of NASA, will be tasked with “developing smart mobility products within the aviation industry,” according to a company press release.

“Having worked on cutting-edge aviation research and development at NASA for 30 years, I am very excited and humbled by the opportunity to now shape urban air mobility strategy at Hyundai Motor Group,” Shin says. “The new team at Hyundai will develop core technologies that will establish the company as a driving force in urban air mobility, a sector that is expected to grow into a market worth USD 1.5 trillion within the next 20 years.”

Hyundai has company in betting that UAM will usher in a new era of flight, one focused on aircraft designed to send small groups of travelers, generally nine or fewer, on short flights within urban areas. There are dozens of companies around the planet competing to get an edge on the technology, from giants like Airbus to smaller companies like Germany’s VoloCopter.

Some cities, like Dubai, are openly embracing the technology. The city’s transit authority wants to transition at least 25 percent of all of its passenger travel to be autonomous by as early as 2030, and the air taxis that began testing in 2017 could play a role in that future.

But there are a number of challenges facing any potential entrants into the still-emerging sector. As listed by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao during her address at the Uber Elevate summit earlier this year, an industry conference hosted by the ride-sharing company that hopes to enter the UAM field, the public has “legitimate concerns about safety, security, privacy and noise.”

Shin is coming to Hyundai to handle some of those concerns. The South Korea-based company mentions his expertise in “revolutionary airframe, engine, aviation safety, and air traffic management technologies.”

The company’s press release only states that Hyundai will develop “core technologies and innovative solutions for safe and efficient airborne travel.” It’s ultimately too soon to say what Hyundai’s investment will look like, but it’s possible the company will look to fill a support role in building out the infrastructure needed for the technology to operate on a mass scale, as opposed to building its own UAM vehicles outright. From landing to license plates, there will be a lot of infrastructure needed.

This Amazon Deal Saves Thousands on Samsung’s Best TVs



Samsung’s latest 8K QLED Smart TVs have left even the stellar performance of 4K QLED TVs in the dust—if you can afford them. But these big deals from Amazon are making some models and sizes a little more attainable. Ranging from 55 to 82-inches, these amazing TVs—the best Samsung has ever produced—are now over a thousand dollars off on Amazon. So if you want the best home theater set up, now may be the time to upgrade.

These TVs all feature 8K resolution (7,680 x 4,320)—that’s 16 times the resolution of a full HD 1080p TV. In order to show such exceptional detail, it’s got an 8k quantum processor that also optimizes sound in each scene and adjusts to the brightness of the room.

Remember back when Game of Thrones fans complained about not being able to see the scenes filmed at night? That’s a total non-issue with QLED tech. The Quantum Dot technology delivers more most realistic images with a fuller color spectrum—so you can clearly see the lightest whites and darkest blacks.

The Q900 line also has ultra-viewing angles that reduce glare, especially if you’re stuck on the edge of the couch in a sunny room and watching from an angle. Like other Samsung smart TVs, it’s equipped with Bixby voice commands, a universal guide, the SmartThings app to connect with other smart home devices as well as compatibility with Alexa and Google Assistant.

Samsung has also put some thought into how these TVs look while turned off. A slimmer wall mount helps the TV hang more flush against your wall and there’s just one cable to connect everything. Ambient Mode is also able to camouflage the screen into your wall’s pattern or show photos, artwork, or news.

Samsung’s best doesn’t come with low price tags, though: The range of 55 to 82-inch 8K QLED Q900 TVs usually runs from $3,500 to $10,000. However, Amazon has cut these prices significantly, so now you can get the 55-inch TV for just $2,200, the 65-inch version for $3,000, the 75-inch for $4,500, or the 82-inch model for $6,000. The bigger you go, the more you’ll save, with a maximum of 40 percent or $4,000 off.

You can also get any 4K QLED for much less than the lowest-priced 8K model. Samsung’s The Frame TV is on sale in four sizes, including 43, 49, 55, and 65-inches, from $800 to $1,600. They all feature the same quantum dot technology as the 8K QLED models, just with a lower resolution. And they’re just as stylish with a no-gap wall mount, a customizable frame around the screen, and an art mode that displays artwork when you’re not streaming your favorite shows.

For less than the Frame models, you can snag a 4K QLED for as low as $650. The Q60 series is similar to the Q900, minus the 8K resolution. These models still feature Ambient Mode and all of the smart TV features like the universal guide, voice control, and the SmartThings app.

And if you’re not ready to upgrade to 8K resolution or QLED technology and just want a great deal on a good TV, Amazon has plenty of other Samsung 4K smart TVs on sale in sizes from 43 to 65-inches below—all are well under $1,000.

Scientists Build Atomic Metronome

BBC Proms 44: Rehearsal - Ligeti's Poeme For 100 Ticking Metronomes And The London Sinfonietta

Amy T. ZielinskiGetty Images

Attosecond physics examines actions that occur in incredibly small amounts of time. Studying atoms that are ionizing, scientists were able to develop a method of tracking electrons as they leave their atomic home.The method could lead to scientists being able to document the exact moment of ionization.

While quantum physics studies incredibly small things, attosecond physics studies incredibly small measurements of time. It’s possible to measure the billionths of a billionth of a second through short lasers bursts, and then study the physical processes occurring during that time. An international team of scientists has determined how to measure the movement of electrons during that short of a time frame, possibly allowing improvements in photosensors and photovoltaics.

Ionizing an atom means either adding or removing an atom. When an electron leaves an atom, it oscillates up and down like a wave on an extremely short time scale. Measuring that remarkably tiny oscillation is a challenge, and it’s what the team from TU Wein in Austria and the CREOL College at the University of Central Florida has developed.

“Any wave consists of wave crests and wave troughs—and the phase of the wave tells us at which points in space and time they are located,” says TU Wien’s Stefan Donsa, who helped develop the new measuring method while working on his dissertation, in a press statement.

“If two quantum waves overlap in such a way that each wave peak of one wave meets a wave peak of the other wave, then they add up,” Donsa continues. “But if you shift one of the waves a little so that the wave crest of one wave is superimposed with the wave trough of the other wave, they can also cancel out.”

In order to time their electron oscillations without any phase shift, the scientists had to create something equivalent to a quantum metronome.

“In computer simulations, we have studied helium atoms which are ionized by laser pulses at different energies,” says Iva Brezinova of TU Wien in the press statement. “The helium atom can absorb a photon from the laser pulse and emit an electron. This electron then has a specific phase, which is extremely difficult to measure.”

Typically under ionization, an atom can only receive one photon. But multi-photonic ionization is possible under the right circumstances. When an atom absorbs two photons, the electron that it fires out has a very specific kinetic energy that is higher than usual. Through measuring that kinetic energy, the team can track the electron as it oscillates.

The development of a tracking method could allow for a huge breakthrough in attosecond physics: direct measurement of an electron’s phase as it leaves an atom.

“Our new measurement protocol allows us to translate the information about the electron phase into its spatial distribution by combining very special laser pulses,” says Donsa. “By using the correct type of laser pulses, phase information can be directly obtained from the angular distribution of the electrons.”