Most of us are uncomfortable with uncertainty. Michael Faraday’s ability to ‘accept the given – certainties and uncertainties’ [see my post entitled ‘Steadiness and placidity’ on July 18th, 2016] was exceptional and perhaps is one reason he was able to make such outstanding contributions to science and engineering. It has been said that his ‘Expts. on the production of Electricity from Magnetism, etc. etc.’ [Note 148 from Faraday’s notebooks] on August 29th 1831 began the age of electricity. Electricity is associated with the flow of electric charge, which is often equated with the flow of electrons and electrons are subatomic particles with a negative elementary charge and a mass that is approximately 1/1836 atomic mass units. A moving electron, and it is difficult to find a stationary one, has wave-particle duality – that is, it simultaneously has the characteristics of a particle and a wave. So, there is uncertainty about the nature of an electron and most of us find this concept difficult to handle.
An electron is both matter and energy. It is a particle in its materialisation as matter but a wave in its incarnation as energy. However, this is probably too much of a reductionist description of a systemic phenomenon. Nevertheless let’s stay with it for a moment, because it might help elucidate why the method of measurement employed in experiments with electrons influences whether our measurements reflect the behaviour of a particle or a wave. Perhaps when we design our experiments from an energy perspective then electrons oblige by behaving as waves of energy and when we design from a matter perspective then electrons materialise as particles.
All of this leads to a pair of questions about what is matter and what is energy? But, these are enormous questions, and even the Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman said ‘in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is’, so I’m going to leave them unanswered. I’ve probably already riled enough physicists with my simplistic discussion.
Note: an atomic mass unit is also known as a Dalton and is equivalent to 1.66×10-27kg
Hamilton, J., A life of discovery: Michael Faraday, giant of the scientific revolution. New York: Random House, 2002.
Pielou EC, The Energy of Nature [the epilogue], Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.