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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Saturday, December 28, 2013

When I Trained to Be an Electron: A Physics Story

I had enjoyed many centuries living a carefree existence as a photon, a free roaming particle of energy. It was fun to just be a wandering massless particle of energy, not subject to many rules. But I always dreamed of something more in life. I longed to have a more intimate and deeper relation with my fellow subatomic particles. So one day I signed up to be an electron. Of course, you can't just choose to be an electron and jump in an atom. First you have to go to the Academy for Electrons, to learn all the stuff that a good electron needs to know. That's exactly where I found myself, all enthusiastic about beginning my training. 
 



On the first day of school I found myself in a big room with lots of other electron trainees. I was hoping to find some particularly cute young electron I could become friends with, but sadly every single electron there looked exactly the same as me. It was like being in a freaking hall of mirrors.

The teacher started to begin the first lesson.

OK, you clueless clowns, listen up and listen good,” said the teacher. “Your wild and crazy days as free roaming photons of energy are over. We will teach you to be good electrons. That means that you will have to learn many a new trick, and many a new rule. The first lesson will be how to behave when you are traveling through an electric wire.”

They injected me and the entire class of electrons into a big copper wire, and let us travel through the wire repeatedly in an electrical circuit. It was a blast! All I had to do was enjoy the wild ride. It was kind of like being a fish being carried along by the high-speed flow of the rapids of the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Me and the other electrons giggled when we bumped into each other.

I thought to myself: cool, I am going to enjoy being an electron. But then they had us do something harder.

OK, you newbies, now it's time for something more challenging,” said the teacher. “You have probably heard of the famous Double Slit Experiment. In this experiment electrons act like particles when they pass through one slit, but they act like waves when passing through two slits. You must learn this important skill.”

To prepare us for this test, they had us electrons practice changing back and forth from a particle state to a wave state. I tried it, and it was fun. I felt all kind of loose and jiggly and energetic when I changed into the wave state.

Then they injected us electrons through either one slit or two slits. I was supposed to act like a particle if there was one slit, and act like a wave if there were two slits. But there was a problem. They injected me so fast I had no time to look and see whether there were one slit or two slits! So I just faked it. I randomly guessed whether there were two slits or one, changing myself into a wave half of the time. By pure luck, it worked. Other poor electrons weren't so lucky, and were flunked out of the Academy right there and then.

OK, students,” said the teacher, “now it's time to learn the real core of being an electron. It's time to practice the art of orbiting the nucleus of an atom.”

They started us electrons out simple. I was put in a simple hydrogen atom, and had to do nothing but keep orbiting around the nucleus. It was a piece of cake. Any idiot could have done it. I thought to myself: is this all there is to being an electron in an atom? But then things got more complicated.

Now, my little friends,” barked the teacher, “you will learn another important part of being an electron. You will learn how to do quantum jumps.”

The teacher explained that a quantum jump is when an electron jumps from one orbit around the nucleus to another orbit. I tried jumping to a different orbit, moving as fast as I could.

No, no, no,” scolded the teacher. “You've got to move to a different orbit instantaneously.

This seemed impossible to do, but after a lot of practice, I was able to do it. I kind of concentrated real hard, and then, poof, I was able to jump to a different orbit in the atom.

So they had us electrons practice quantum jumps in atoms. They sent in photons of energy, and whenever a photon of energy hit me, I was supposed to do a quantum jump to a different orbit in the atom.

At first I thought I had got the hang of it. But then they told me about a rule that would mess everything up for me.

You're doing it wrong,” the teacher said to me. “You can't just jump to any old spot in the atom when you do a quantum jump. You have to follow the Pauli Exclusion Principle. The Pauli Exclusion Principle says that no two electrons in the same atom can have the same quantum state. That means you can't jump to an orbital position in the atom if another electron with your spin is already there.”

Here was the deal. They put me in a complicated atom with dozens of other electrons, orbiting the nucleus in many different orbits. They sent in photons into the atom. Whenever a photon hit me, I was supposed to jump to a different place in the atom. But I couldn't just jump into any old place. I had to figure out exactly the right place to jump to, so that I could obey this godawful Pauli Exclusion Principle. Plus, I had to figure that out instantaneously.


It was kind of like a rule that you can take any seat in a dark crowded movie theater where there are only a few seats, but you can't ever sit next to someone with the same eye color that you have. And also, you have to figure out which seat to take instantaneously.

I tried to fake it, like I had done with the slit test. I just tried jumping to random positions in the atom. But it didn't work. They kept catching me, and they kept telling me I was violating the Pauli Exclusion Principle.

Finally I lost my temper.

What do you think I am, some kind of freaking Einstein?” I bellowed. “How in hell is an electron like me supposed to instantaneously figure out the right place to jump to in a complicated atom with lots of other electrons?”

My teacher had no sympathy for me. I was thrown out of the Academy for Electrons.

So I gave up my hope of becoming an electron. Now I am once again a lonely free-roaming carefree massless photon of energy. My dreams of moving up in life have been shattered. Crushed by the system!

I still can't figure out how those other electrons manage to keep instantaneously jumping to the right positions in those atoms.

This story is fiction, but it raises a serious question. How is it that electrons are able to behave so “brilliantly” when doing quantum jumps in complex atoms?