Tag Archives: electrons

Seeing with Mathematics

Our brain uses sensory data to sift for patterns in space and time that help us create a mental model of the world through which we can navigate and stay alive. At some point, this model of the external world becomes our basis for thinking symbolically and mathematically about it.

Mathematics is an amazingly detailed, concise and accurate way of examining the world to state the logical relationships we find there, but many physicists and mathematicians have been astonished about why this is the case. The physicist Eugene Wigner wrote an article about this in 1960 titled ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences’. In fact, since the enormous successes of Sir Isaac Newton in mathematically explaining a host of physical phenomena, physicists now accept that mathematics actually serves as a microscope (or telescope!) for describing things and hidden relationships we cannot directly experience. This amazing ability for describing relationships in the world (both real and imagined!) presents us with a new problem.


Mathematics is a symbolic way of describing patterns our world, and sometimes these symbolically-defined descriptions actually look like the things we are studying. For example, the path of a football is a parabola, but the equation representing its path, y(x), is also that of a parabolic curve drawn on a piece of paper. But what happens when the mathematical description takes you to places where you cannot see or confirm the shape of the object?

Mathematics is a tool for understanding the world and symbolically stating its many logical interconnections, but the tool can sometimes be mistaken for the thing itself. Here is a very important example that comes up again and again when physicists try to ‘popularize’ science.

In the late-1940s, physicist Richard Feynman created a new kind of mathematics for making very precise calculations about how light (photons) and charged particles (such as electrons) behave. His famous ‘Feynman Diagrams’ like the one below, are very suggestive of particles moving in space, colliding, and emitting light. This diagram, with time flowing from left to right, shows a quark colliding with an anti-quark, which generates a photon that eventually produces an electron and anti-electron pair.


The problem is that this is not at all a ‘photograph’ of what is actually happening. Instead, this is a tool used for setting up the problem and cranking through the calculation. Nothing more. It is a purely symbolic representation of the actual world! You are not supposed to look at it and say that for the solid lines, ‘particles are like billiard balls moving on a table top’ or that the photon of light they exchange is a ‘wiggly wave traveling through space’. What these objects are in themselves is completely hidden behind this diagram. This is a perfect example of what philosopher Immanuel Kant was talking about back in the 1700s. He said that there is a behind-the-scenes world of noumena where the things-in-themselves (ding-an-sich) exist, but our senses and observations can never really access them directly. The Feynman diagram lets us predict with enormous precision how particles will interact across space and time, but hides completely from view what these particles actually look like.

Another example of how math lets us ‘see’ the world we cannot directly access is the answer to the simple question: What does an electron actually look like?

Since the 1800’s, electricity increasingly runs our civilization, and electricity is merely a measure of the flow of electrons through space inside a wire. Each of us thinks of electrons as tiny, invisible spheres like microscopic marbles that roll through our wires wicked fast, but this is an example of where the human brain has created a cartoon version of reality based upon our ‘common sense’ ideas about microscopic particles of matter. In both physics and mathematics, which are based upon a variety of observations of how electrons behave, it is quite clear that electrons can be thought of as both localized particles and distributed waves that carry the two qualities we call mass and charge. They emit electric fields, but if you try to stuff their properties inside a tiny sphere, that sphere would explode instantly. So it really does not behave like an ordinary kind of particle at all. Also, electrons travel through space as matter waves and so cannot be localized into discrete sphere-like particles. This is seen in the famous Double Slit experiment where electrons produce distinct wave-like interference patterns.


So the bottom line is that we have two completely independent, mathematical ways of visualizing what an electron looks like, particles and matter waves, and each can facilitate highly accurate calculations about how electrons interact, but the two images (particle and wave – localized versus distributed in space) are incompatible with each other, and so we cannot form a single, consistent impression of what an electron looks like.

Next time we will have a look at  Einstein and his ideas about relativity, which completely revolutionized our common-sense understanding of space created by the brain over millions of years of evolution.

Check back here on Tuesday, December 13 for the next installment!