What Is an Electron?

George Gilder

What is an electron? As an investor in all things electronic, I want to know.


“A carrier of negative electric charge,” say the dictionaries, hiding the enigma behind its own adjective.

Then what is a positive electric charge? In electronics, it’s the absence of an electron, termed a “hole.”

Round and round the atom we go, ending where we started.


It suggested the famous “first law of holes.” When you are in one, stop digging. Try somewhere else.

What Is an Electron? I Began My Studies 50 Years Ago

I began my study of electronics and technology some 50 years ago at Caltech, frequently visiting the venerable professor Carver Mead and his students. Beginning with The Spirit of Enterprise (1985) and Microcosm (1989), I have written five books inspired by Carver and telling his story. My favorite is The Silicon Eye (2005), recounting the early adventures of Carver and his students in neural networks, now the foundation of advances in artificial intelligence. Among his students was Bill Dally, now the technical genius behind NVIDIA corporation (NASDAQ: NVDA).

I’m now back in Pasadena, California, for the gala celebration of Carver’s 87th birthday, highlighted by his delivery of Caltech’s canonical Watson Lecture. I can say I’m surrounded by the world’s leading experts on the electron. Many of the buildings were even named for titans of the field, from Gordon Moore of Intel corporation (NASDAQ: INTC), connoting “intelligent electronics,” to Robert A. Millikan, who won his Nobel Prize for first accurately measuring the electric charge.


Going down to breakfast at the historic Athenaeum, I pass busts of Albert Einstein and Linus Pauling, perhaps history’s leading authorities on these enigmatic entities from the contrary points of view of physics and chemistry, never finally reconciled.

What Is an Electron? Expert Carver Mead Says…

Carver Mead is probably the world’s leading living expert on the electron. In his speech last year accepting the coveted Kyoto Prize, he pointed out that the three dominant theories of the electron—Maxwell’s equation, General Relativity, and Quantum Theory—were now over a century old. Though epochal in their time, their findings are all rendered problematical by the discoveries of advanced modern measurement devices and technologies.

Today, Mead is most famous perhaps for doing the research behind Moore’s Law and then naming the law for its inventor and Mead’s then friend, pupil, and employer, Gordon Moore.

But at the outset of his lifelong Caltech career, Mead created and tested some of the world’s first “tunnel diodes” after they were conceived in 1959 by Leo Esaki of Sony in Japan and described in an early visit to the Caltech campus. Perhaps as much as any other device, the tunnel diode, whereby electrons instantly appear on both sides of a forbidden barrier at once, epitomizes the enigma of the electron.


The phenomenon is termed “negative resistance” and is considered a quantum feature of the electron behavior. Some 65 years later, he is still working long hours for two weeks every month in his Caltech lab. With colleague Jamil Tahir-Kheli, he has become a world-leading authority on a modern form of tunneling called “superconductivity.”

So, Carver is the man to explain to me what is an electron.

What Is an Electron? ‘Never Got Figured out’

He reveals, “It never got figured out. It got buried in the math of three times n dimensions, with physicists covering up what they don’t understand with all these tricky little rules. I cannot think of a single case where these physical theories have actually helped with the technology.”  He says the engineers have been left to contrive practical solutions on their own.

Mead contends that the confusion about the electron is consequential because it obscures the phenomenon of superconductivity, a critical area of electronics which is also not understood. The prevailing theory is Bardeen, Cooper, and Schrieffer’s (BCS) of 1959 which earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986. But as Mead points out, BCS failed in explaining the crucial phenomenon of high temperature superconductors.

BCS describes superconductivity at near zero Kelvin temperatures where resistance collapses without heat vibrations and it accounts for the band-gap above the superconductor protecting it. But BCS does not explain the collective coherent state that can emerge even at high temperatures. Tahir-Kheli says university physicists spent some $25 billion on cuprate superconductors and produced hundreds of thousands of papers but attained no usable results.


“Electrons didn’t give a damn about what degrees and prestige these authors had,” Tahir-Kheli remarked. Again, they should have applied that first law of holes.

What Is an Electron? An Enigma

Mead told me he believes that Tahir-Kheli is embarked on a promising path to a better theory using the huge body of data from nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment. Together, the Caltech researchers are contriving new high temperature superconductors that offer technological promise because of their exceptional capacity to carry electrical currents. They believe that once well above the need for costly liquid helium chilling, the carrying capacity of the superconductor (before it becomes resistive) is more important for technology than its particular temperature of operation.

Pointing to the crisis of excess heating in all our devices, they envisage new forms of wire that are perfect conductors of electrons and can enable super trains as fast as planes and energy production and transmission without resistance.

Such contentions about the enigma of the electron as a wave, a particle, a spin, an electrical charge that violates the laws of electricity in tunneling and superconductivity, all confirmed similar complaints from Walter de Heer of Georgia Tech. The inventor of an epochal new form of wafer-scale semiconductor made on a film of epitaxial graphene on silicon carbide, de Heer believes that we are on the verge of a new era in electronics, physics and chemistry, where the old rules offer little guidance.

Wafer scale, with no chips anymore and most wires obviated on the miracle material of graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms that is the strongest, most electrically conductive, and most heat transmissive material known—all will become possible within the next few years.

But as he says, the full promise depends on better answers to the question: “What is an electron?” To keep up with the search and how to profit, consider subscribing to Gilder’s Technology Report.

P.S. I will be holding a subscribers-only teleconference at 1:00 p.m. EST on May 29 entitled “5 Ways to Profit from the Paradigm Shift in Semiconductors.” The event is free, but you need to register here to be able to attend. Don’t miss out!

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