Our friend, the electron

When we talk about “data”, and about “information” we strain to imagine what it is that actually happens with it in a digital network. We always see the result of data travelling through the network, because the computer goes “ping” and we can read an email that’s been sent, or we can watch a news item being streamed live while we’re at the station waiting for a train that’s been delayed, but it’s well nigh impossible to visualise, in your head, what actually happens in order for us to be able to do so.

That’s until you become friends with the electron. Being a subatomic particle with a mass of a bit more than one two thousandth of a proton, the electron is very small indeed. If you were to place an average size grapefruit next to an average size pea, you would have, in very broad approximation, the relative sizes of a proton and an electron. Except that inside the atom they would be rather further away from each other. To get an idea of how far away, put your grapefruit in the palm of Nelson in Trafalgar Square in London. You would then find the pea whizzing around the M25, which, if you don’t know London that well, is the suburban orbital motorway which encircles the city approximately 20 miles from the centre. Bearing in mind the pea size of our electron relative to the grapefruit nucleus in Nelson’s hand, we then have an atom the size of Greater London. But an atom is hardly the size of London. An atom itself is so small that one million atoms, lined up next to each other, make up about the thickness of the page you’re holding in your hand, if you are reading this book on paper. So you can see just how small an electron really is, it’s as big as a pea inside an atom as big as London, but it takes a million atoms to make up the thickness of a page in a book.

Tiny as it is, the electron, it is still negatively charged. In fact you may recall it has an elementary charge of -1. And that is why, in energy terms, the electron is our friend. Because being so small it can travel exceptionally fast, at nearly at the speed of light. And having an electrical charge, even a tiny one, it will change the state of any atom it happens to travel to, because most atoms most of the time are balanced in terms of their electromagnetic charge, which means they are neutral. (If that weren’t the case, you’d continually get small or large electric shocks when touching things. But as you know from experience, that only happens when you either touch something that has been deliberately electrified, such as a wire with a current running through it, or when you touch something that has got accidentally charged, such as a metallic surface that has been exposed to some friction, or the hand of somebody who’s been moving about a lot in a synthetic garment.) So because the “normal” state for most things when nothing is happening to them is neutral, each time an electron comes along, with its negative charge, it upsets things a little. The atom where the electron has arrived is now either negatively charged too, because the balance is out of kilter, or it, the atom, does something drastic, like expunge another of its electrons. It’s the expunging that’s the interesting bit, because the electrons that are already there really “want” to be there. They don’t “want” to leave. (The electron, with its minute size and subatomic nature, does not, we know, have a “will”, we are trading metaphors here…) So there’ll be a fair bit of jostling, before one of them goes, and that jostling is energy which registers as either heat or light or a magnetic field. And so although the dimensions are crazy, and there’s an awful lot of nothing in an atom, the electrons, with their diminutive size, have a fantastically big impact on them. They are a bit like the courier. We are oversimplifying things to some considerable extent now, but like a courier, they can carry a message (information) or a log of wood (energy). And the reason they can do either is because we have, about a hundred years after starting to make use of electricity as energy, found a way of using energy to symbolise information. We decreed that an electric charge should signify “on” or “yes” or “1” and that no electric charge should signify “off” or “no” or “0”. And we worked out that if you break things up into small enough units, you can codify any piece of information in precisely these two contrasting expressions: “on” or “off”, which is the same as “yes” or “no”, which is the same as “1” or “0”. (This, incidentally, covers only one technical aspect of digital encoding. In order to make information encodable, as it is today, developers and inventors had to break with century old traditions and invent a whole new algebra, as well as programming languages and bit-based binary code itself, which to go into would, at this stage, be stretching a little too far.)

The “digital” age was born, which is why to this day you see graphic designers illustrate all things to do with computers and information technology with cascading, travelling or otherwise moving ones and noughts. And this achievement, of using electricity to codify information has given us the ability to network information and deal with it, share it, distribute it, at the speed of light across the globe. But if we can “symbolise” information using electricity – which we patently can – then we can also “symbolise” electricity, using information. Now we no longer restrict ourselves to saying “electricity can carry information”, we can also say “information can guide electricity”. Because it clearly can: we don’t have to treat electricity as if it were a barrel of oil or a heap of coal. It isn’t. It’s an abstraction of a barrel of oil or a heap of coal, or anything else we like to use to “generate” it. We can treat it as such, we can treat it as information.