Happy Birthday, Electron; June 2012; Scientific American Magazine; by Frank Wilczek; 1 Page(s)
Electrons rule our world, but not so long ago they were only an idea. This month marks the 120th anniversary of a profound and influential creation, the electron theory of Dutch physicist Hendrik Antoon Lorentz. His electron was not merely a hypothesized elementary particle; it was the linchpin of an ambitious theory of nature. Today physicists are accustomed to the notion that a complete description of nature can rise out of simple, beautiful equations, yet prior to Lorentz that was a mystic vision.
For most physicists the memorable peak of 19th-century physics is the theory of electrical and magnetic fields, capped by James Clerk Maxwell’s mathematical synthesis of 1864. Then a haze settles, until the 20th-century massifs of relativity and quantum theory poke through. That foggy folk history obscures the bridge between—itself a brilliant achievement, built through heroic labor.