(Bloomberg) -- Three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for experiments that gave humanity new tools for exploring the world of electrons inside atoms.

Contributions by Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier have enabled the investigation of processes that are so rapid they were previously impossible to follow, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm said in a statement Tuesday. The three will share the 11 million-krona ($1 million) award, the academy said.

The research has “opened the door on an extremely tiny timescale,” Eva Olsson, academy member, told reporters. 

Their methods generate pulses of light that last attoseconds — one billionth of a billionth of a second. That means that an attosecond is to one second as one second is to the age of the universe.

Potential applications include medical diagnostics, where the shortest pulses can be used to identify molecules, and in electronics for understanding and controlling how electrons behave in a particular material.

Agostini, a French-American, works at the Ohio State University in Columbus. Krausz, who was born in Hungary, is director at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, as well as professor at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet in Munich. French-born L’Huillier is a professor at Lund University in Sweden.

One of the laureates was not reached before the announcement, said Hans Ellegren, secretary general, without disclosing who. L’Huillier ignored the committee’s calls before finally answering, she said. 

“I was teaching, so I picked up the phone when you rang for the third or the fourth time,” L’Huillier said at a news conference. “It’s just fantastic. The last half hour of my lecture was a bit difficult to do.”

Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896. A prize in economic sciences was added by Sweden’s central bank in 1968.

On Monday, Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, were announced as laureates of the medicine prize for research that laid the groundwork for messenger-RNA vaccines against Covid-19.

The laureates are announced through Oct. 9 in Stockholm, with the exception of the peace prize, whose recipients are selected by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo.

--With assistance from Anton Wilen and Christopher Jungstedt.

(Updates with details on the laureates from second paragraph)

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