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Ethylene is a small hydrocarbon molecule that plays numerous roles in our daily lives. As a plant hormone, it regulates growth and can be used to promote the ripening of fruits. As a highly reactive molecule, it serves as a major building block in the chemical industry, where the molecule is often polymerized to make plastics or oxidized for the manufacture of detergents and automotive antifreeze. The underlying physics that drives ethylene’s functionality is the ultrafast motions of the electrons and nuclei that constitute the molecule. A better understanding of how these motions depend on each other could allow greater control of the behavior of ethylene or any other molecule. Writing in Physical Review X, Xinhua Xie, from Vienna University of Technology in Austria, and colleagues have performed experiments that reveal the correlated electron-nuclear dynamics and the possibility of steering the breaking of the ethylene molecule by an ultrashort laser pulse [1].

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