How to Use a Super-Intense Laser to Kick an Electron out of a Molecule

For all its possibilities, nature tends to replay one particular scene over and over again: the confrontation between matter and light.

It stages the scene in a practically infinite number of ways, but in the most familiar versions, light kick-starts a physical process that begins when a photon hits an atom or molecule. In photosynthesis, photons from the sun strike chlorophyll molecules in a plant to knock electrons loose, setting off the chemical conversion of carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen. When you get a sunburn, photons of ultraviolet light strike and damage DNA molecules in your skin. You’ll find the process in technology, too, such as in

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