Scientists at Imperial College London have made the most accurate measurement yet of the shape of the humble electron, finding that it is almost a perfect sphere, in a study published in the journal Nature today.
The experiment, which spanned more than a decade, suggests that the electron differs from being perfectly round by less than 0.000000000000000000000000001 cm. This means that if the electron was magnified to the size of the solar system, it would still appear spherical to within the width of a human hair.
The physicists from Imperial’s Centre for Cold Matter studied the electrons inside molecules called Ytterbium Fluoride. Using a very precise laser, they made careful measurements of the motion of these electrons. If the electrons were not perfectly round then, like an unbalanced spinning-top, their motion would exhibit a distinctive wobble, distorting the overall shape of the molecule. The researchers saw no sign of such a wobble.
The researchers are now planning to measure the electron’s shape even more closely. The results of this work are important in the study of antimatter, an elusive substance that behaves in the same way as ordinary matter, except that it has an opposite electrical charge. For example, the antimatter version of the negatively charged electron is the positively charged anti-electron (also known as a positron). Understanding the shape of the electron could help researchers understand how positrons behave and how antimatter and matter might differ.