electron, elementary particle carrying a unit charge of negative electricity. Ordinary electric current is the flow of electrons through a wire conductor (see electricity). The electron is one of the basic constituents of matter. An atom consists of a small, dense, positively charged nucleus surrounded by electrons that whirl about it in orbits, forming a cloud of charge. Ordinarily there are just enough negative electrons to balance the positive charge of the nucleus, and the atom is neutral. If electrons are added or removed, a net charge results, and the atom is said to be ionized (see ion). Atomic electrons are responsible for the chemical properties of matter (see valence). The name electron was first used for a unit of negative electricity by the English physicist G. J. Stoney in the late 19th cent. The actual discovery of the particle, however, was made in 1897 by J. J. Thomson, who showed that cathode rays are composed of electrons and who measured the ratio of charge to mass for the electron. In 1909, R. A. Millikan measured the charge of the electron. Combining these two results gives the mass of the electron (about 1/1,840 of the mass of the proton). Ernest Rutherford, in 1903, showed that beta rays (see radioactivity) are high-energy electrons. In 1927, Davisson and Germer, working with high-speed electron beams, discovered that electrons sometimes exhibit the wave property of diffraction. This confirmed L. V. de Broglie's hypothesis that electrons, which had previously been thought of as particles, also possess certain wave properties (see quantum theory). The wavelike properties of electrons are utilized in the electron microscope and other devices. The electron is the lightest particle having a non-zero rest mass. It belongs to the lepton class of particles and, together with its antiparticle, the positron, and its associated neutrino and antineutrino, constitutes a subfamily of the leptons. In any particle reaction involving any of the four members of the electron family, the total electron family number (+1 for ordinary particles, - 1 for antiparticles) must be conserved (see conservation laws, in physics). As a consequence, an electron and a positron (total electron family number equals zero) can annihilate each other to yield two or more photons or a neutrino-antineutrino pair, but not two neutrinos (total electron family number equals two).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.