You can’t see an electron. There’s no way to look at the structure of an electron, because as far as we can tell there isn’t one. You can’t touch it, you can’t feel it. Their very existence was unknown for much of human history. And yet, they’re so important that literally nothing would exist without them.

What is an electron?

An electron is a sub-atomic particle. Of course everyone says that without really understanding what that means. So let’s back up. You know what atoms are. Atoms are the smallest bits of something that can’t be broken up by chemical means. You can take a piece of chocolate cake and pour acid over it. (Why, Stuart, why?) This will cause some of the cake to turn into something else, because the acid will break it down.

Keep adding acid, or heat, or some other natural force and you’ll eventually get down to one of 94 naturally occuring substances that you can’t break down anymore. These are called “elements,” and you probably remember at least some of this from high school. There are actually 118 elements that we know of, but as far as we know the only way to make 24 of them is with fancy machines.

Those elements are made of atoms. An atom is the tinest bit of an element that you can get, and it’s still an element. If you take a bit of copper and cut it smaller and smaller you’ll eventually get to a bit so small that you can’t cut it anymore. If you did, it wouldn’t be copper anymore.

Atoms themselves are made of protons and neutrons, which sit in the middle of the atom, and electrons, which shoot round and round like crazy, tiny little planets. But why do they do that?

Electromagnetic force

As far as we know — and I say that because we’re still learning — there are four “forces” that actually make things happen in the world. Electromagnetic force makes electrons move, and that’s an incredibly important thing. Electrons carry an electrical charge, and if you apply electromagnetic force to them, they move.

The best part of all of this is there are some electrons that aren’t tied to atoms. These are called “free electrons” which sounds like a robot version of Free Willybut isn’t.

Free electrons travel from place to place, affected by an electromagnetic force. And this little thing, which happens in a world so small we can’t see it, makes everything possible. Including, and not limited to, this article.

What do electrons do?

What don’t they do? Your body runs on tiny amounts of electricity. Electricity, by the way, is the thing we can observe and measure when electromagnetic force is carried by electrons. (There’s a lot to unpack there, and I might do that in another article.) Without free electrons there would be no life.

Without free electrons, there would be no electrical power. Nothing would happen, which I suppose is fair because no one would be there to see it. Without free electrons there would be no electronics, no computers, and no Solid Signal Blog. Even if there was a Solid Signal Blog (which there would definitely not be) there would be nothing fun to blog about.

That’s a pretty heavy load to put on a tiny little particle like an electron. If it weren’t for this thing we can’t see, hear, touch, or smell, there literally wouldn’t be… anything.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.