A Nobel prize for… Observability?

Robert Barron
4 min readOct 4, 2023

Observability is a winner!

On the 3rd of October 2023 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 2023 to Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier for what they described as having

“demonstrated a way to create extremely short pulses of light that can be used to measure the rapid processes in which electrons move or change energy.”

Ill. Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Prize Outreach

Those short pulses of light become flashes for high speed photography. To understand what this means, consider that regular photographs, which you take everyday with your phone or camera, are usually no faster than a hundredth of a second. An attosecond is a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second.

In one second, an electron can move around 300,000 km (160,000 miles) — much too far to make any measurement of “where is it now” meaningful.
In a few attoseconds, an electron moves just far enough to see on which side of an atom it is — just enough to start understanding what the electron is doing.
In other words, the Nobel winners found a way to take images which show how the individual components of atoms move.

To illustrate this in another way, compare these two images of a hummingbird in flight:

Scintillant hummingbird (Wikipedia)
Hovering Hummingbird (rawpixel)

In the first image, the wings are moving too fast for us to see how the hummingbird’s wings beat. In the second image, the camera was fast enough to freeze the wings in place.

By collecting enough of the faster images, scientists understand how a hummingbird flies.

Hummingbird flight (wikipedia)

In the world of Site Reliability, this is, to a great extent, the difference between mere “Monitoring” and “Observability”.

Monitoring tells us that an electron has moved, a hummingbird has flown, and that a system has a problem (run out of disk space, queue is saturated, cache is out of sync, etc…)

Observability enables us to understand the path an electron has taken, the way a hummingbird is flying, and what is causing the problem in our system — and what’s the fastest way to get back to normal.

The usage of the attosecond pulses is still academic and it will be years before the mechanisms they uncover will have industrial applications — perhaps the manipulation of atoms to create new types of molecules which have been too difficult or costly to create till now, leading to new materials or medications.
However, the application of high speed Observability is available today and is used to resolve (and avoid) critical incidents which impact the clients I work with.

For example, Instana automatically collects all the tracing and telemetry data from monitored applications so you have a continuous stream of data without missing any “wing beats” which might highlight the cause or solution. This stream of data is vital for building baselines which our embedded AI uses to identify and highlight anomalies.

Some of the latest features of Instana go beyond Observability and add AI-powered automation and auto-remediation.

You don’t need to be a Nobel prize winner to understand the value of Observability in keeping your systems reliable — just be an SRE!

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Robert Barron

Lessons from the Lunar Landing, Shuttle to SRE | AIOps, ChatOps, DevOps and other Ops | IBMer, opinions are my own