Who Says an Electron Can’t Have It All?

Alexandre Gondran via Wikimedia Commons

Here I go!

I speed toward the anode, its positive charge appealing to my intrinsic negativity. I dream about diving into it, splashing into its electron-deficient sea. It needs me. I can swim around inside it, balancing its charge, redistributing heat to its coldest parts. I can be useful.

I brace myself for impact, but my path zooms me through a hole in the metal. Soon I’m streaming through and hurtling out into empty space. The anode tugs at my spin vector as I pass, but I’m going too fast to turn around and go back. Instead, I focus on what’s ahead.

A solid wall. Nothing interesting there: it’s an insulator, a boring place for someone like me. I imagine the electrons inside drearily bound to their parent atoms. How depressing. Squabbling with the same siblings day after day; tracing out the same lonely orbital. No thanks.

I search for ways to avoid slamming into the wall. As luck would have it, there’s a slit to my left. With just a slight variation to my course — well within the limits of the electron emitter’s accuracy — I can fly through that hole and onto whatever adventures await on the other side.

But wait! On my right, another slit. Who knows what lies behind that one? There could be another anode. I could dive into a metallic ocean and ride the current forever.

Left or right? This decision will determine my future. What if I make the wrong choice? Knowing my luck, I probably will.

Mom always said I was indecisive. You can’t be everywhere at once, she says. You need to settle down. She’s always nagging me to choose a nice, stable orbital, perhaps even find myself a partner to share it with. Not too closely — we are fermions, after all — but you can have a very nice life alternating lobes of a cozy p-orbital with an agreeable partner. All you have to do is find your spin — up or down — and find a partner who spins the other way to complement you.

But how do you know if you’re up or down? How can you commit to a single orbital, or — more urgently — to a single slit?

The slits loom large. If I don’t decide soon, I’m going to crash into the great black wall between them. I know I can’t go through both. I know I have to choose, have to give one up. And yet, I can’t do it. I can’t stand to limit myself like that.

I think about what Mom would say. “There are only two possibilities: yes or no. Left or right. You can’t have it all.”

I fly closer and closer, delaying the decision as long as possible, and then something incredible happens. I feel myself spreading open. My being smears across a vast expanse of space. Having always thought of myself as a point particle, this is surprising to say the least.

It’s also magical.

Spanning the apparatus, I gain a whole new perspective. The slits are no longer discrete choices, but paths I have already explored. Like a river flowing under a bridge, I stretch from source to sea. The feeling is astounding, but nothing has changed. I realize I’ve always been like this, the outer parts of my being trailing away from my core, sparking off photons that fizzle briefly into existence before looping back into me.

I am a wave that travels as freely as any ray of sunlight. I am infinite. I am everywhere. I can go anywhere I want to go, do anything I want to do.

I fly through both slits.

Originally published by Quantum Shorts in 2017.

Writer — follow on Twitter @hannahwhiteoak - website hannahwhiteoak.me

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