Shock Treatment

January 18, 2008

Welcome to another exciting installment of Fun With Science! This week we’ll be looking at static electricity. Specifically we’ll be looking at it by putting on wool sweaters, dragging our feet across the carpet, and then touching someone else’s elbow or the back of their neck or their eyeball. And we’ll be exploring why this is funnier if you do it to someone who’s not expecting it and is instead watching television or performing cardio-thoracic surgery. The term “static” means “still”, and “still” means “a thing people used to use to make whiskey in the old days”. (To learn more about stills and how to build one, check out our previous installment, Brewing Up Trouble).

Sometimes static electricity makes things stick to each other. For instance when you’ve got an important business meeting you can bet that there will be a sock stuck to the back of your shirt that you won’t find out about until after the meeting is over. Later on we’ll be exploring uses for static electricity by rubbing balloons on the backs of cats and then seeing if the cats will stick to the wall. Sometimes you can see static electricity as a bright spark that you mostly see during the winter. We’re not sure why you mostly see static electricity during the winter, but it may be because there aren’t as many thunderstorms in the winter as there are during the summer. Maybe static electricity is related to lightning. (For more about lightning, take an old TV antenna out in the back yard during a thunderstorm. For best results climb up on an aluminum ladder and wave the antenna above your head.) You may have read in a science book that you can generate static electricity by rubbing a plastic bar with a piece of fur. This raises some very interesting questions. If you get a big enough plastic bar and enough fur could you generate enough static electricity to power your house? And what sort of person owns plastic bars and fur? That guy you see hanging out down by the bus stop—the one who’s always wearing a trench coat even in August and who has a really greasy-looking combover—looks like he’d be the sort who’d have a plastic bar and some fur and probably a lot of other weird things too. And is static electricity good for anything other than making your friends jump, or hurting your ears when it comes through your headphones while you’re trying to listen to the radio at work? These are all very good questions, and science is all about answering questions. Fun With Science, on the other hand, is only about answering really interesting questions. Next time we’ll be looking at earthworms and electrical outlets, and asking, Can they be friends?

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