Not So Negative

Seeing inside an electron, virtually.
April 22, 2012

Matthew Hastings didn’t need a huge particle collider to split an electron. Instead, the Duke physicist did it virtually, with the help of several massive supercomputers.

Fundamental particles: Simulated experiments allow researchers to speculate how electrons might react under different conditions.

Hastings and a team of physicists designed the model to understand what might happen if an electron, one of the fundamental particles of matter, was broken up. They created a simulated environment of ultra-cold temperatures, near -459 degrees Fahrenheit, where electrons over- come their natural repulsion to each other and begin to cooperate. By placing a vir- tual electron into a quantum fluid, an exotic state of matter where electrons begin to condense, they were able to fracture the electron into two pieces, each with one-half the original particle’s charge.

The simulation was the first experi-ent to identify subparticles with partial properties of an electron, opening up new questions about the particles’ capabilities. The unique breakthrough also suggests that physicists don’t necessarily have to smash matter open to see what’s inside.