Orbiting the Nucleus1
Swift and far beneath the air, an electron
embodies presence and haste. This leaping
lepton — a hurricane can’t keep pace — is never
still: pin it down, lose it entirely.
To know it is careening is to become unsituated:
the clocked electron resides anywhere.
I would have told you about metal blades,
tiny turbines in gas-filled glass tubes — its discovery —
but I’ve been distracted by the return stroke of lightning,
the speed of light in a diamond, darting
faster than voltage can caper across vitreous tubes.
Imagine shadows of cathode rays moving in perfect straight
lines across the glass. These same rays’ shadows
bend in the presence of a magnet.
A century of arcs and curves,
torn swirls and swept tracings bending around, shooting
across, looping around again, paths warping in fields.
An electron on display in school — Styrofoam
planet, held by cosmic toothpicks, central
sun-nucleus of protons, neutrons. Skip
across scales: mammoth, mini. Never mind childhood models,
electrons are more like clouds. Suspend oil drops,
time their earthly fall — pit gravity against electricity —
find the electron’s mass. Millikan swore
he had seen it, he could count negative charge
as easily as fingers and toes. The electron’s charge exactly
opposite the proton, yet tiniest fraction
of the proton’s size and mass. Those trails will tell you
almost anything. Though we cannot paint an electron
red let us see it bare: reserved as its contours, saying nothing.
- With a line from Marianne Moore↵