What Does An Electron Look Like?

In school, you probably learned that an atom was like a little solar system with the nucleus as the sun and electrons as the planets. The problem is, as [The Action Lab] points out, the math tells us that if this simplistic model was accurate, matter would be volatile. According to the video you can see below, the right way to think about it is as a standing wave.

What does that mean? The video shows a very interesting demonstrator that shows how that works. You can actually see the standing waves in a metal ring. This is an analog — still not perfect — for the workings of an atom. An input frequency causes the ring to vibrate, and at specific vibration frequencies, a standing wave develops in the ring.

What was most interesting to us is that this explanation shows why electrons only increase and decrease in steps. Turns out nothing is really orbiting the way we all learned in school. Not that this model is exactly correct either, but it is apparently closer to reality than the old-school model.

Electrons are one of those funny things that sometimes look like a wave and sometimes look like a particle. Not that we fully grok all the quantum weirdness. Maybe we half understand it, and half don’t understand it.

23 thoughts on “What Does An Electron Look Like?

  1. My bet is that quantum stuff is going to be one of those things that turns out to be like 95% wrong in a century or two (and that quantum computers are going to be vaporware and you should short that stuff immediately)

    1. Like classical (newtonian) mechanics are “wrong” for certain domains, no doubt so will QM turn out to be wrong. But predictions made by QM (pretty much the foundation for modern electronics and a boatload of other stuff) is not going to be wrong, just as classical mechanics are not going to be wrong when describing a bowling ball rolling down a lane.

      1. Yeah, too much of the quantum weirdness has been too thoroughly demonstrated by too many experiments (and by transistors) for it to be “95% wrong.”

        We just need to get a deeper understanding of it, much like we needed Einstein to help explain what Newton couldn’t (excellent analogy btw).

        There are plausible arguments against the hoped-for advantages of quantum computation, but it still seems to be a “we won’t know until we get there” situation. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I also wouldn’t bet against, for example, Shor’s algorithm being living up to its promise.

        1. There’s nothing really “weird” about any of the quantum stuff. The difficulty is all just trying to come up with an idea about what it “physically” is. But that’s just a human problem, not a problem with the theory.

          Really, a ton of it is just bad journalism/science communication. When you start describing things as “spooky’ and “weird,” it makes for good clickbait but horrible visualization.

          1. Exactly. Even the simple point in this article “sometimes look like a wave and sometimes look like a particle” is an example. There’s no “wave/particle duality” equation in quantum mechanics. You don’t plug in “particle” behavior sometimes and “wave” behavior other times. It’s exactly the same, all the time.

            The whole “sometimes a particle, sometimes a wave” thing is a *visualization* issue. I don’t know why it’s taught like that. You don’t ever need to think of them as *either* of the two.

  2. Something that struck me because of having an RF course and another course involving electron orbitals is that there was a resemblance of certain dipole configurations to electron orbitals. I think it makes some sense from this standing wave point of view assuming that the waves interfere with each other. There will be certain stable interference patterns. If this is indeed the case, then I wonder if there might be a mathematical connection between a phased array system and electrons in an atom that goes beyond just the graphical one.

    1. The orbital configurations you see are just the basic fundamental spherical harmonics in 3 dimensions. Those same shapes will show up all over the place, including in RF systems.

  3. It’s a nice demo. The electrons inhabit spherical harmonics, which take on some weird shapes and nicely explain the discrete orbital bands, and how many electrons can occupy them.

        1. Any bound particle is a standing wave. Any “free” one is a travelling one, although that’s a concept: you can still think of it as like a standing wave (a mode is a better thought) in spacetime between it’s beginning and end.

  4. Great presentation. His sponsor, BetterHelp, was recently found guilty of selling the mental health history of patients to places like Google for advertisement purposes.

  5. The problem is that we are a visual species. This is why classical mechanics was ‘discovered’ before quantum mechanics, solid stuff is just easier to imagine. There are several interpretations of quantum mechanics trying to make sense in our limited brains of the mathematics behind it. Trying to describe particles as a wave that sometimes turns into a particle is really not helping much. One interpretation is that the ‘waves’ are actually probability distributions that show the chance of finding the ‘particle’ somewhere. The measurement of trying to find the particle actually ‘destroys’ the probability distribution (well, actually the measuring ‘tool’ wave function mixes with the ‘particle’ wavefunction) so you can do the measurement only once. The trick to recover the whole probability distribution is to prepare a lot of ‘particles’ in the same way and perform the measurement on a multitude of those identical prepared systems.
    Of course the above is just one interpretation…….

  6. I am sorry to say that this demonstration is a failure to me… first off, it is planar and only moves in two dimensions and thus cannot be used as much of a “more accurate” descriptor than the orbitals… secondly, while the idea of standing waves is intriguing, there are far too many issues that still need to be worked out. For instance the lowest shell is comprised of very few electrons and even using this variant would seem to require a higher frequency of energy due to the influences of the positive charges at the center to avoid “crashing” into the nucleus… similarly higher frequencies create more standing wave nodes which is the opposite of what is known. There are also many other dichotomies and observations in other comments that just does not fit well with that demonstration. It also does NOT seem to take any portion of the electromagnetics into account.

    1. “even using this variant would seem to require a higher frequency of energy due to the influences of the positive charges at the center to avoid “crashing” into the nucleus”

      Electrons *do* crash through the nucleus. Constantly. In literally any of the l=0 states, the most likely location to find the electron is inside the nucleus.

  7. I learned the “solar system” model in high school 30 years ago… But even then, my teachers explained that this was just a useful analogy and not the full story. After 30 years i’m getting pretty tired of the trope that “OMG everything you learned at school is WRONG!” that seems particularly prevalent among today’s youtubers.

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