An Electron's Valentine

A third of the way through The Strangest Man Graham Farmelo quotes a few stanzas from a poem that currently resides in the Cavendish Laboratory Archive at Cambridge University. 

O hear the sad petition we electrons make to you 

To free us from the dominion of the hated quantum view

For we are all abandoned to its dread uncertainty,

Except by you, our champion. O we pray you, set us free!

Once in a pleasant order, our smooth-flowing time was spent.

As the classical equations told us where to go, we went.

We vibrated in the atom, and a beam of light was freed;

And we hadn’t any structure – only mass and charge and speed.

We know not if we’re particles, or a jelly sort of phi,

Or waves, or if we’re real at all, or where we are, or why.

The story goes that this (anonymous) poem was found pinned to a notice board at the Cavendish Lab around 1930. I thought it was adorable anyway, but when I discovered (in the notes at the end of the book) that this was written as a Valentine’s card to the electron, I loved it even more - and I just knew I had to refer to it in Only The Longest Threads! 

Personally, however, I’m still not sure whether it is a Valentine to the electron, or from the electron to the Physicists; I would actually argue for the latter interpretation. To me, it seems that electrons, finding themselves in the midst of the greatest crisis of identity and philosophy they have ever known, are reaching out for help. So even though I am fully aware that actual subatomic particles did not sit down and pen these verses, part of me still can’t help being touched by the faith ‘the electrons’ show in our ability as Physicists to set the world to rights.

Reading this poem makes me want to go reassure a few electrons this Valentine’s Day and promise them that we will try to prove worthy of the trust they repose in us. While I’d never thought about it in those terms before, I suppose we do – through the theories we espouse – assign identities to everything we study. Given the number of times we have changed our worldview this past century, we’ve probably been the inadvertent causes of quite a few ‘adjustment disorders’ (if not out-and-out psychoses) in the subatomic world alone.

Here’s hoping we do better in the future.