February 9, 2007
There’s nothing like static electricity. Okay, I know what’s kind of a goofy thing to say because there’s nothing like avocados, vinegar, or jellyfish, but they all make a nice salad. What I mean is that static electricity is really fun and useful. It’s useful because, when you’re a kid and in school you can use it for quick science experiments that look and sound a lot more complicated than they really are. You just take a rat out of a maze, rub a balloon on its back, stick the balloon to the wall, and then say, "So this proves the speed of sound is a million miles an hour" and you can spend the rest of the class playing with nitric acid. And it’s fun because you can rub your feet on the floor as you walk up to a friend and then shock him on the back of his neck. You can also do this with an extension cord plugged into the wall, but it’s not nearly as funny. And then there are those really cool static electricity generators with the big silver ball on top–the ones that make all your hair stick out in all directions when you touch them. These are very important in science because they’re how all famous scientists get their crazy haircuts. Okay, that’s not true. No one really knows why you can’t be a physicist unless you have hair that sticks out in all directions. This problem is of great concern even to physicists. I believe Einstein started working on the theory of relativity when he looked in the bathroom mirror one morning and said, "If I take two identical twin barbers and one travels at the speed of light the other can stick around and fix mein herr."
But I digress. Winter is the time for static electricity, and it’s been really, really, really dry lately, so I’ve actually seen static electricity do some amazing things that go even beyond what you can do with a rat and a balloon and an extension cord. The other morning the dogs got me up really early. This wasn’t so much an Einstein kind of thing as it was Pavlovian. Pavlov wasn’t a physicist so his hair didn’t stick up, but he did experiment on the effects of feeding bells to dogs. I don’t know what he was trying to find out, but maybe he should have worked with bears. I understand that when people go out hiking in areas that have bears they wear bells–the hikers, that is, not the bears. You can even tell what kind of bears are around by looking at their droppings. Black bear droppings are small and dark while grizzly bear droppings have bells in them.
But I digress. Before I could take the dogs out I had to put my bathrobe on, and because it was too early for me to use my brain I was trying to do this in the dark. And I noticed that my bathrobe crackling. I could see little flashes of light in it as I tried to figure out how to put it on so I wouldn’t flash my neighbors. It was amazing. It was like the aurora borealis was in my bathrobe. And also my hair was sticking out in all directions.