Thursday, April 10, 2014

the electron theory

I'm reading a delightful book right now called, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!"  It's a bunch of little stories from the life of phyicist Richard Feynman, as told by Richard Feynman.

I came across an interesting little idea on page 70.

Feynman says, "The electron is a 'theory' that we use; it is so useful in understanding the way nature works that we can almost call it real."

I think most people count that it IS real, and so it's good to have some clarification that it isn't, quite.

At first it might seem unsettling to think that the electron is more of an idea than a real thing; this might make our world seem less solid, less concrete.  But his pointing this out is comforting to me because it helps make sense of something else I learned about the electron back in college.  An idea that has never set well with me.

In college they told us that the electron has mass.  They told us they can do experiments to measure the mass of an electron, but any experiment they can think of, to measure the radius of an electron, always comes back with the answer of "zero".

How the crud do you have a physical object that has a measureable mass but has a diameter of zero?

This is a uncomfortable idea.  But if you think about the electron as more of a model to explain the experimental results that we see, and less as a physical, solid thing, it leaves some fudge factor in there for what's really going on... something that we haven't discovered...or don't understand...yet.

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