What is the shape of an electron?

Jaroslav Kores, Ph.D.

What is the shape of an electron? (Source: © Siarhei / stock.adobe.com)

In the schematic diagrams of an atom, electrons are usually painted as coloured balls. But how does an electron really look like?

Unfortunately, I am not a particle physicist, so I hope that I will not be fundamentally wrong in the fact that my answer is: we do not know. More precisely, we do not know and will not know. In our world (in terms of size) we are able to accurately measure, take pictures, and weigh anything. And as our technologies keep improving, we’re able to measure more and more accurately. But this accuracy improvement does not go to infinity — in very small dimensions (such as electrons) we encounter the limits that nature gives us — specifically the principle of uncertainty (see the question Can I can go through the wall). To measure a ball accurately, we need it to stand. This is not a problem to arrange. But it doesn’t work that way in the microworld — the more accurately we know where the electron is, the faster the electron will move. And on the contrary, the slower the electron, the wider the space in which it is. But the funny thing is, we are never able to say exactly where the electron is, but we are able to say exactly where it is not. And if we can’t stop the electron and look at it at rest, it’s hard to find out its shape. In my opinion, it is generally considered as a point. The problem with a point is that it has no dimension. And when it has no dimension, it has no shape. To complicate it a little bit further, the electron is not (just) a particle, the electron is (at the same time) a wave. Therefore, for an electron (perceived as a wave), there is no point in solving its shape. But since the behavior of an electron (at least in the context of general phenomena such as electric current or chemical bonds) has nothing to do with its real shape, we will do nicely by considering it a ball.

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