Everyone has heard of something called an electron. As a science teacher, it always interested me to see how little my students understood about what electrons are, what they do, and how electrons affect our lives.
The story of the electron started early in human history when the ancient Greeks found that if they rubbed fur on amber, the amber attracted things. It wasn’t until the 1800s that people began to understand the electron as we know it today. It was only in 1897 that J.J. Thompson discovered the particle itself.
The design of the electron is amazing. Science is just beginning to understand what charge is, but it is easy to show that there are two kinds of charges. They are negative and positive, and when they are combined, they neutralize each other. The electron carries a negative charge. (The proton has a positive charge and has about 1836 times the mass of an electron, but we will look at protons tomorrow.)
The electron has spin properties and behaves like a tiny magnet due to the spin. In atoms, electrons are paired so that the north pole of one electron is matched with the south pole of another electron. This allows the reactions we know about in chemistry. When an electron is accelerated, it radiates or absorbs energy, depending on whether it is speeding up or slowing down. These factors are the basis of much of our modern world of technology and are the reason electrons affect our lives so much today.
Beta particles can be released in nuclear reactions. Beta particles can be either electrons or antielectrons known as positrons. If an electron beta particle collides with a positive antielectron beta particle, they annihilate each other. The result produces gamma rays – a high energy form of light.
Science is still trying to understand how these particles are created. We are beginning to understand what causes charge, but the answer to the origin questions is what the field of quantum mechanics is about. The normal laws of the physical world have to be discarded, and new rules understood to investigate the tiny world of nuclear physics. It is an exciting time to be alive as science opens up new horizons, and electrons affect our lives in new ways.
All of this reminds us of the intelligence and creative genius of God. “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (Hebrews 11:3).
— John N. Clayton © 2020