Standard Model of Elementary Particles

Standard Model of elementary particles. The electron is at lower left.

The electron is a subatomic particle, symbol e− or β−, with a negative elementary electric charge. Electrons belong to the first generation of the lepton particle family, and are generally thought to be elementary particles because they have no known components or substructure. The electron has a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton. Quantum mechanical properties of the electron include an intrinsic angular momentum (spin) of a half-integer value in units of ħ, which means that it is a fermion. Being fermions, no two electrons can occupy the same quantum state, in accordance with the Pauli exclusion principle. Like all matter, electrons have properties of both particles and waves, and so can collide with other particles and can be diffracted like light. The wave properties of electrons are easier to observe with experiments than those of other particles like neutrons and protons because electrons have a lower mass and hence a higher De Broglie wavelength for typical energies.

Many physical phenomena involve electrons in an essential role, such as electricity, magnetism, and thermal conductivity, and they also participate in gravitational, electromagnetic and weak interactions. An electron in space generates an electric field surrounding it. An electron moving relative to an observer generates a magnetic field. External magnetic fields deflect an electron. Electrons radiate or absorb energy in the form of photons when accelerated. Laboratory instruments are capable of containing and observing individual electrons as well as electron plasma using electromagnetic fields, whereas dedicated telescopes can detect electron plasma in outer space. Electrons have many applications, including electronics, welding, cathode ray tubes, electron microscopes, radiation therapy, lasers, gaseous ionization detectors and particle accelerators.

Interactions involving electrons and other subatomic particles are of interest in fields such as chemistry and nuclear physics. The Coulomb force interaction between positive protons inside atomic nuclei and negative electrons composes atoms. Ionization or changes in the proportions of particles changes the binding energy of the system. The exchange or sharing of the electrons between two or more atoms is the main cause of chemical bonding.

Electrons can also participate in nuclear reactions, such as nucleosynthesis in stars, where they are known as beta particles. Electrons may be created through beta decay of radioactive isotopes and in high-energy collisions, for instance when cosmic rays enter the atmosphere. The antiparticle of the electron is called the positron; it is identical to the electron except that it carries electrical and other charges of the opposite sign. When an electron collides with a positron, both particles may be totally annihilated, producing gamma ray photons.

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