What if the diminutive electron isn’t as small as it gets?
Philip Harris By Abigail Beall ONE in three people reading these words will do so on a device powered by electrons. To make that possible, we go to incredible lengths: generating electrons in vast power stations, stringing cables across the countryside to bear them to us, and installing sockets in the walls of every room. In short, we depend on them – which makes it a shade embarrassing that we don’t fully grasp what they are. It’s not just that our best theories paint a strange picture of their nature, although that is true. As far as we can tell, electrons are points with precisely zero size that obey the strange rules of the quantum world. One of these particles can influence another through a spooky property called entanglement, for example. Electrons can also tunnel from one place to another without existing in between. But the truly inexplicable thing about the electron is that it has two heavier siblings. The universe would tick along fine without these particles, which never hang around long anyway. So why do they exist? And why are there three siblings, not four or 104? For decades, physicists have had no answer to these questions, but at last we may be edging towards an understanding. If anomalies at particle accelerators across the globe are to be believed, there may be a hidden world buzzing beneath the surface of the electron – one that would force us to rethink all the fundamental building blocks of matter. The electron was our first subatomic particle,