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April 20, 2012

Electrons, apparently, may not be indivisible after all.

Free electrons moving through space are fundamental and indivisible: they are not built up of smaller particles, in contrast with protons and neutrons. However, within materials, interactions among electrons and atoms can give rise to quasiparticles, quantum states in which groups of electrons behave as new, particle-like excitations.

I don’t know on what basis the quasiparticles are quasi-, other than the dogma that electrons are indivisible. But it’s interesting to see electrons split up into mass, charge, and spin; I’d always expected this to happen. It’s more elegant. But this article makes me wonder–what does quantum physics (QP) mean by “particle,” anyway? Or by “moving through space”? What sort of “space,” and what sort of “particle”? I don’t know the answer. But it’s not, I’m sure, just Euclidean points and volumes.

I’ve always found QP to be philosophically intriguing, but perhaps not for the usual reasons. I suspect that the randomness thing is a red herring as far as free will goes (would we believe ourselves more free if our actions were random but still not caused by us?), and from a metaphysical perspective the simultaneous wave/particle thing seems hardly new (potentiality and actuality anyone?). But the “quantum”–now that does seem game-changing.

When we zoom in far enough, QP continuity ceases; quantities become discrete. There is a smallest-mass, a smallest-charge. “Smallest” means they can’t be subdivided. You can’t have less than one electron of charge; that also means you can’t have 1.5 electrons of charge. There’s no longer such a thing as measuring; everything is counting. How much becomes how many. Units become unnecessary. How much water? “Ten liters.” How many people? “Ten.” How much charge? “One coloumb.” How many electrons? “6.241509745 x 10^18.” Cf. Planck units.

Does QP say that there’s a smallest distance? If so (it may very well not, but suppose it does), this would make complete nonsense of the traditional understanding of “space.” It wouldn’t just do so to space as Euclidean, the way relativity does; it would do so to space, period. If, given any two points, the distance between them must be a whole number, then any formula for finding the distance from A to C knowing AB, BC, and the angle ABC, must be such that it never results in a non-whole number. Any such formula, if one is even possible (which I doubt), would completely change what we thing of as the relationship between angle and distance. This wouldn’t just be a shift from 3D to 4D or 11D; it would be out of such “dimensions” altogether.

It would, that is, be a shift out of calculus into something more like number theory; analysis to algebra. Cf. the book Unknown Quantity, whose concluding chapter offers an excellent introduction to the dichotomy. A similar shift takes place in mathematics around the turn of the century; and in philosophy; and, perhaps, even in poetry. It disappoints me that people usually think of QP as a shift towards uncertainty; it may be that, but more, it’s a shift towards a conception of reality as no longer adequately represented by spatial models.

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