J.J Thomson discovered the Electron through an experiment which was an attempt to determine the specific charge of cathode rays. Cathode rays move from a negatively charge plate (cathode) to a positively charged plate (anode) when an electric discharge is passed through a gas at low pressure. Thomson found that the charge found in the rays did not depend on the nature of the gas or on the electrode material, suggesting that the ‘rays’ were composed of previously unknown particles which are fundamental to the constituents of the universe. These particles are Electrons.
We use the behavior of these negatively charged particles in all of our electrical technologies. Without our knowledge of this particle we would be stuck in an age of dull, slow and noisy mechanical machines. The electron is the key to our technological development.
For a while physicists have thought they knew the electron very well; they knew its mass, its charge and how it interacts with other particles. But they did not know, to a very precise degree, it’s shape. Researchers at Imperial college London however have become quite intimate with the electron and have witnessed it’s spherical beauty.
A team in the basement at the college in South Kensington have been conducting experiments to measure the ’roundness’ of the particle. The team have conducted what is called ‘satellite gravity probe B’ as an apparatus to determine its shape.
Professor Ed Heinz at UCL:
Well it’s very very very round, one way to explain how round it is, is to expand it to the size of the solar system… then the shape will be round to within about the size of a human hair.
This shuts doors on our earlier education on the electron as we were told that an electron is just a point particle which is practically dimensionless. But as Ed Heinz continues he states that the modern view of an electron is that it is surrounded by a cloud of fluff. This cloud of fluff is interesting. It contains a variety of fundamental particles which come in and out of existence (Be assured they are not mystical religious entities… trust the science). The behavior of these particles influences the shape and size of the electron.
You may think, hmmm wow a cloud of fluffy stuff affects the size a one of the tiniest particles in nature. So what!? It gets more interesting.
In physics there is an elegant and powerful tool called the standard model. This explains how most particles interact at the tiniest of scales (with a little help from our friend: Quantum mechanics). But there is a huge hole in what seems to be a flawless explanatory tool. It cannot explain how everything got here, actually it rules such a thing happening. The standard model predicts that matter and anti-matter will annihilate each other at the beginning of the universe. There should be a universe only consisting of light. However it isn’t. What physicists are trying to do with accelerators is find other particles which can prove the standard model wrong… improving it. Another way of doing this is finding what affects the dimensions of particles like the electron and through this we may uncover secrets untold. The treasure which will help us explain how the hell we all got here.
It is a pretty sexy thought.