In a French edition of Fiat Homo (first part of A Canticle for Leibowitz) I found the following footnote about the definition of the electron given by Brother Francis to another monk, namely “Torsion du néant négativement chargée”. The original English has “negative twist of nothingness”, but there are no footnote in any English edition.

The footnote is, in French, copied exactly as it appears, (including the misprint in the name of Millikan !):

Définition exacte (donnée par le Pr Léon Brillouin, puis reprise par Robert Andrews Mullikan, prix Nobel). Elle est en effet incompréhensible si l’on n’a pas le contexte, c’est à dire toute la complexe structure de notre physique.

The second sentence is not important for my question and the first one, I believe, does not need any translation.

So is there any source about Léon Brillouin giving such a definition for the electron ? He might have given it in French, or in English. Again, any source about Robert Andrews Millikan giving it ?

Millikan might have translated into English Brillouin’s original phrase which might have been slightly different, Miller probably used Millikan’s form (if it really exists) and the french translator maybe did not bother to trace Brillouin original phrase (if it exists).

Besides Brillouin and/or Millikan does anyone know of a similar definition of the electron by a “serious” physicist of that time, even if his theories are now totally abandoned ? I am thinking in particular of William Thomson, a.k.a. Lord Kelvin and his “Vortex Theory”, or J. J. Thomson who, before he discovered the electron, did write papers about Kelvin's Vortex Theory.

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    $\begingroup$ It is peculiar that the French translator decided to correct Miller. French version is more accurate, "negatively charged twist of nothing”. There was a 19th century theory that conceived particles as knots in ether, but this seems instead to be a poetic allusion to modern physics. After all, what electron has is charge and spin (also mass, so it is a bit off with "nothing"). I think it more likely that the translator really did find Brillouin's quip and decided to insert it verbatim and credit the compatriot. But I could not find the source. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 4:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Conifold I don't think it is an allusion to modern physics. "Twist" does not refer to the spin, but to Kelvin's "knots in ether" . See my own (provisional, and that I did not accept) answer to my question. But you are right, the french quote is more accurate than the english one. Apparently the translator did bother about finding Brillouin's exact phrase. Miller either took Millikan's form, or changed it to make the joke funnier "negative nothingness" can become "somethingness", "negatively charged nothingness" is not as fun. In French, the joke did not seem as good when I first read it. $\endgroup$
    – Alfred
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 12:57

1 Answer 1


I have found a provisional answer to my own question.

For the time being I will not accept it because it does not mention either Léon Brillouin or Robert Andrews Millikan.

I still hope someone will come up with a source for one of both of them.

But Larmor was most certainly a "serious" physicist of that time (a "great" physicist would be more appropriate).

In a remarkable book I found on the Web, Histories of the Electron The Birth of Microphysics edited by Jed Z. Buchwald and Andrew Warwick H  I found two quotes by Larmor, in the very last years of the 19th Century, that apply the word "twist" to the electron. Not "twist of nothingness", nor "negative", just twist. But it is clearly within the (now totally outdated) Vortex Theory of Lord Kelvin.

In a few months Larmor reconstructed his theory on the basis of FitzGerald’s suggestion. Currents were now identified with the transfer of freecharges (“monads”), which were also the cause of magnetic phenomena. Those charges had the ontological status of independent entities and ceased to be epiphenomena of the field. Furthermore, material atoms were represented as stable configurations of electrons. In Larmor’s words,

“the core of the vortex ring [constituting an atom] . . . [is] made up of discrete electric nuclei or centres of radial twist in the medium. The circulation of these nuclei along the circuit of the core would constitute a vortex . . . its strength is now subject to variation owing to elastic action, so that the motion is no longer purely cyclic. A magnetic atom, constructed after this type, would behave like an ordinary electric current in a nondissipative circuit. It would, for instance, be subject to alteration of strength by induction when under the influence of other changing currents, and to recovery when that influence is removed.”

Math. and Phys. Papers, vol. 1, 515

There was no year of publication provided for this one. This is a quote by Larmor within a quote from the book Histories..

Second quote, again a quote by Larmor within a quote from the book

Larmor’s “electrons” were conceived as permanent structures in the ether with the following characteristics:

“An electron has a vacuous core round which the radial twist is distributed. . . . It may be set in radial vibration, say pulsation, and this vibrational energy will be permanent, cannot possibly be radiated away. All electrons being alike have the same period: if the amplitudes and phases are also equal for all at any one instant, they must remain so . . . Thus an electron has the following properties, which are by their nature permanent ii(i) its strength [= electric charge] i(ii) its amplitude of pulsation (iii) the phase of its pulsation. . . . "

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Febr. 9, 1898,

So the word "twist" in reference of the electron, is indeed a reference to Kelvin "Vortex Theory", and not to the electron spin, that is a notion that did not appear before 1925, decades later.


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