January 18, 2008
Welcome to another exciting installment of Fun With Science! This week well be looking at static electricity. Specifically well be looking at it by putting on wool sweaters, dragging our feet across the carpet, and then touching someone elses elbow or the back of their neck or their eyeball. And well be exploring why this is funnier if you do it to someone whos 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 youve got an important business meeting you can bet that there will be a sock stuck to the back of your shirt that you wont find out about until after the meeting is over. Later on well 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. Were not sure why you mostly see static electricity during the winter, but it may be because there arent 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 stopthe one whos always wearing a trench coat even in August and who has a really greasy-looking comboverlooks like hed be the sort whod 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 youre 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 well be looking at earthworms and electrical outlets, and asking, Can they be friends?