PerspectiveSpectroscopy

Intense x-rays can be (slightly) exciting

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Science  25 Sep 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6511, pp. 1568-1569
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd6168

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Summary

Since their discovery by Röntgen (1) in 1895, x-ray imaging and spectroscopy have revolutionized disciplines as diverse as astrophysics, materials science, chemistry, and the life sciences. However, in the medical context, x-rays are also known for their darker side: They damage tissue. Although even that destructive nature is turned into a benefit in radiation therapy, on a fundamental level, x-rays damage atoms from the inside out: They typically kick out deeply bound electrons, punching a “core hole” into the atom. This unstable situation unleashes a cascade of electronic relaxation events that turn neutral atoms into ions, thus breaking chemical bonds in molecules or creating defects in solids. On page 1630 of this issue, Eichmann et al. (2) show how to outpace the radiation damage of x-rays on the fundamental, single-atom level. They detect neutral neon atoms that are just slightly excited, not damaged. Counterintuitively at first, this process benefits from the extremely intense x-rays supplied by a free-electron laser (FEL).

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