Mistakenly, lots of people last year celebrated the centenary of the discovery of the electron by J.J. Thomson while he was a professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University, UK. ‘Electricity’ had of course been discovered long before that, and our industry is probably more traceable to the discovery of electromagnetic induction by Michael Faraday than to Thomson’s identification of fundamental negative charge particles. We have to admit, though, that the exploitation of our industry’s stock in trade has been mightily forwarded by electronics, the science and technology of which have in large part defined the twentieth century.

Why did I say ‘mistakenly’? Here I lean on Professor Abraham Pais, a Dutch-born US physicist noted not only for his contributions to fundamental particle theory but also for his popular science writing. In Beam Line (a particle physics periodical published by the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, USA) Pais points out that Thomson’s 1897 measurement of the charge/mass ratio of cathode ray particles was not the first. Pais opines that Thomson’s ‘finest hour as an experimentalist’ came in 1899, because that was when he concluded that cathode ray particles were the fundamental corpuscles that we call electrons.

Observe that Pais lauds Thomson as an experimentalist: not surprisingly, considering the subject’s status as a professor of experimental physics. Yet, in an article by Robin Marshall in Frontiers (a new UK government science magazine), the great man is revealed in a slightly different light.

Thomson apparently set out to train as an engineer. He embarked on this career under Professor Osborne Reynolds (yes, the one who devised the famous number) but had to abandon it and swap disciplines when his father died: the engineering fees were too high. Studying the less expensive ‘natural philosophy’ instead, he was in due course given a series of experiments to do. Marshall quotes from reports on the pupil’s progress, including such specimens as ‘Mr Thomson made some experiments in measuring electrical resistances but not very successful’ and ‘Mr Thomson measured the resistance of the same piece of wire. He also compared the rheostat which gave very inconsistent readings’.

Marshall ends his tale of experimental misadventures brightly, however. ‘It is hard to imagine’, he chortles, ‘what Thomson might have achieved had he been more proficient at experiments on electricity’. Or, one is tempted to add, had he been allowed to complete his training as an engineer.

Zap the population problem

Labourers and trespassers on construction sites – and children playing on them – have occasionally picked up and pocketed stray radioactive capsules, with consequences that I need hardly elaborate.

Not altogether inexplicably, thoughts of such unhappy incidents flashed through my mind when I received a Reuters dispatch from Beijing about a new pocket contraceptive for men.

The report said that an hour’s well aimed emplacement of the pager-sized gadget in a man’s clothes would sterilize him for a month.

Not this time, however, did I read anything about Chinese traditional medicine: there was nothing, for instance, about what a sadly mistaken schoolchild once described as ‘ache-you puncture’. Reuters told not of ying and yang and deep-probing needles but of ‘electronic pulses’ transmitted (presumably by other means) into “autonomic nerves which change the sperm’s [sic] habitat”. The electronic pulses were claimed also to be spermicidal.

The contraceptive’s inventor, one Yang Xiyong, was quoted as saying that a wearer’s full fertility would be restored ‘two months after he has stopped using the contraption’. I therefore guess that a radioactive source is unlikely to be the “contraption’s” killer component. The nuclear industry may thus escape obloquy if the device proves to have undesirable side effects.

I further guess that it is essentially battery-powered – mains-connected use could present embarrassments – so utilities need not expect any vast changes in load magnitude or pattern as the contraceptive sweeps into worldwide use.

How poetically just it will be if the planetary overpopulation problem is solved by an invention from China!