The Shape of the Electron

In a subterranean lab and over a period of ten years or so, a small team of researchers have built the best machine in the world dedicated to measuring the shape of the electron which is one of our infinitesimally small indivisible constituents of matter.  This elegant and economical experiment, described in Nature as "a low energy window on the high energy soul of the cosmos", may produce findings that have far reaching implications for our understanding of the universe.

I'm making work about this project and collecting it here in the form of writings, drawings, prints, paintings and film. The short film and piece of writing in the entry below titled 'Story' is the best place to begin and is where I have tried to gather the essential facts and convey the endeavour.

I will add to this collection regularly, so please return.  You might also enjoy visiting the scientists' website

I would like to thank the physicists measuring the shape of the electron: Jack Devlin, Ed Hinds, Jony Hudson, Ben Sauer, Joe Smallman, MikeTarbutt. 


1. Story

High definition digital video: 4.31 mins.

In this tiny film we have tried to convey the essence of the project.  With thanks to the team.

Piano - Prof Ed Hinds, playing Bach, Prelude and Fugue 17 from the Well Tempered Clavier.
Double Bass - Dr Ben Sauer playing an excerpt from Sibelius Symphony No. 2, beginning of the second movement. 
Footage of the yellow precessing electron - programmed by Dr Mike Tarbutt.

Film Narrative

Electrons are spinning things.  

Whirling around the outskirts of every atom they give form, colour and information to our world.

You probably imagine them to be round, defined by a single number.  We all expect beautiful symmetry, but our best theories need quirky asymmetry to explain why we exist.  We imagine that nearly 14 billion years ago, our universe began symmetrically, with as much matter as anti-matter.  This would cancel out in spectacular annihilation, removing all stuff, leaving no potential for us, just a universe of spreading light.  To solve this problem of existence, amongst other conditions, we think that the shape of the electron needs to be an egg.

The shape brings other implications.  In our complex world there are clues about the direction of time, but physicists ask – ‘can we tell for the simplest things?’  If the electron’s shape is an egg, time’s arrow permeates even the tiniest scales.  If it is round, then we cannot always be certain if we are moving into the future or the past.

You might wonder why we don’t know the shape of the electron by now.  The incredible hardness of this question is due to the smallness of the electron.  It is infinitesimally small – an unimaginable ten thousand trillion trillion make the weight of a gnat’s wing or a single snowflake.  So an electron is affected by everything and we have to pay attention to many details.

Here is our experiment, beautiful with its simple question, economy and far reaching meaning, requiring so much ingenuity and paraphernalia. 

In the subterranean room, beneath the weight of twelve storeys, the systems hum.  Spending time with the experiment, you lose track of the hours and the weather.  The laser light speckle is steely and captivating and hard on the eyes.  There’s a tall chamber shielded in magnetic field proof jackets.  Inside it’s as cold as space.  The electrons travel upwards in synchronisation – spinning and precessing.  Preparations and measurements are made with the finely tuned green laser beam light causing the electrons to sing and give up information.  An egg shape precesses faster than a round one - the experiment measures how fast the electrons precess.

The close knit little band of scientists working on the experiment is dogged, clever, dry humoured, war torn, serious and beautiful.  They have had some quease-making setbacks over the years.  They never stop trying to figure out problems.  It is like an almost infinite crossword puzzle. After so long, one can read the health of the laser light from its colour and intensity, intuit if the calculating machines are working well and spot if there is something out of place.  He says the work requires great pessimism, so every small advance feels like progress.  To save themselves from bias inherent in their human nature they mask the results and take the data blind.  And they take vast quantities.

So far, the electron remains stubbornly round.  And over dinner friends say “of course it is - what have you been wasting your time doing?”  They don’t realise they might not be here if it was and that time’s arrow may sometimes be unknowable.

The experiment is measuring with staggering accuracy to a hairs breadth against the size of our galaxy.  Teams in America are entering the fray and everyone will be glad if someone delivers a result.  Our experimenters will make the experiment much more precise and keep measuring even if they have to build a new machine, looking for the tiny asymmetry.


2. Laboratory

It was good to sit for a long morning and then a long afternoon drawing the experiment. A scattered green laser beam glancing my shoulder. The team find these drawings interesting, because they show everything, even cable ties. Each person sees the set up differently: one may focus on the quality of the laser light, the calculations and orderliness of equipment; another on the people, the problems they're trying to solve and his abstract picture of the heart of the experiment.

All images: pencil and coloured pencil across sketchbook pages, 36 x 56 cm 


3. Colour

Yesterday in the laboratory I was struck by the vivid splashes of colour given by laser light, digital displays and computer screens.

While I sketched, Valentina and Anne were working on an optics table for a molecule cooling experiment. Glimpses of them at work are shown in the following images.


4. Different Descriptions

Oil based lino cut print on Japanese mulberry paper, 62 x 57 cm

Physicists have two different ways of thinking about what is going on in this experiment: the quantum and classical views.  Each model visualises quite different happenings though both must yield the same measurement outcomes.   This lino cut shows both views, the quantum picture in red, the classical in blue. The experimental set up is shown in the middle in yellow.  Whether or not you speak physics, I hope you enjoy the design. 

Please see the short film 'Explanation to a Scientist', to explore both prints in more detail.
I thank physicists, Mike Tarbutt and Jony Hudson who helped create this picture.

5. Team

These drawings were made in the week the team published their latest result in a 'Letter to Nature'. The heart of the conversation was concerned with improving the experiment and getting over a problem with the metal plates producing the electric field.


6. Explanation to a Scientist

In spite of the title, this short  film is intended for the non-physicist as much as the physicist to give insight into the language scientists use and to share the beauty in the language and the forms.
I would like to thank the EDM team and in particular physicist Mike Tarbutt who scripted the narrative. 
The artwork is  from a triptych of three lino cut prints that tell the story of the experiment from different perspectives.