Orbiting the Nucleus1

Jessica Reed

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.

  1. With a line from Marianne Moore
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