Ever since the invention of the laser over 50 years ago, scientists have been striving to create an x-ray version of the laser. The x-ray sources we currently use in medicine, security screening, and science are in essence the same x-ray light bulb source that Röntgen discovered in 1895. In the same way that visible lasers can concentrate light energy far better than a light bulb, a directed beam of x-rays would have many useful applications in science and technology.
Until recently, we needed very high power levels to make an x-ray laser. The first successful x-ray laser experiments were, in fact, powered by nuclear detonations as as part of the ‘Star Wars’ program in the 1980s. To make a practical, tabletop-scale, x-ray laser source required taking a very different approach that involves transforming a beam of light from a visible laser into a beam of x-rays. The story behind how this happened is surprising and beautiful, highlighting how powerful our ability is to manipulate nature at a quantum level. Along the way, we also learned to generate the shortest strobe light in existence - fast enough to capture even the fleeting dance of electrons in the nanoworld. This new capability shows promise for next-generation electronics, data and energy storage devices, and future medical diagnostics.
Professor Margaret Murnane is a Fellow of JILA and a distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado. She runs a joint, multi-disciplinary, research group with her husband, Professor Henry Kapteyn. Professor Murnane, with her students and collaborators, uses coherent beams of laser and x-ray light to capture the fastest dynamics in molecules and materials at the nanoscale. She is a Fellow of the Optical Society of America, the American Physical Society, the AAAS and an Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy. In 2011, Professor Murnane won the RDS Irish Times Boyle Medal for Scientific Excellence. Professor Murnane is very interested in increasing diversity in science and engineering.