Hello there skeptics,
This month, June (its June on Australia already, so I’m celebrating), is marking a very special occasion. It was 120 years ago that Hendrik Lorentz published his paper, which is now known as the birth of the electron. The electron is one of the most pivotal ideas in physics, and is crucial to our understanding of electromagnetism, but it was only an idea for most of the 19th century.
For a long time, electrons were thought about in relation to electricity and magnetism, ad was theorized by quite a lot of physicists, but there was no maths for it, until 1864. It was that year that James Maxwell put forward his theory of electrical and magnetic fields. To some people’s surprise, the equations many physicists learn today as ‘Maxwell’s equations’ are not what Maxwell wrote about in 1864. Maxwell’s equations where messy and complicated. Maxwell did not know that what he was writing could have become the biggest set of equations in physics history, he was only thinking about making his fundamental equations fit with the phenomena observed. He just put the equations on paper as best as he could. The equations today known as Maxwell’s are only a readers digest of the many symbols, scribbles and sprawls which can be found in his exposition.
It took Lorentz, in 1892, to tidy it all up, purify the jumble of equations and symbols in Maxwell’s work, and make physics poetry for the next century. Lorentz had to sort the signals and beauties of Maxwell’s work from the mess. The signal: four equations which describe how electrical and magnetic fields respond to electric charges, and one equation that specifies that force the fields exert on charge. The noise: Pages upon pages of scrawling, jottings, symbols and messiness left behind by Maxwell.
Now that some (relatively) simple equations where around, physicists started to wonder if these equations could be used to rebuild how we think matter works, starting ground up from the electron, and pave the way for particle physics. Lorentz and others set out to test it, and sure enough, they could use this equation to explain phenomenons of the universe one after the other; conduction of heat, conduction of electricity, reflection of light, refraction of light, and many more electron related things.
In 1897, Joseph Thompson provided experimental proof that electrons really do exist, considered now the birth of the electron, after its conception in 1892.
This work set up the next century of physics and beyond, with a lot of the quantum mechanics, special relativity and general relativity work relying upon these equations. One must not forget the role that Maxwell played, but it was Lorentz who paved the way for particle and astro physics for they next 120 years and beyond. Even today, we still use these equations in our physics, and in almost every physics domain, you trace back its roots to Lorentz and his electron, because electrons rule our world.