Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Better Living Through Science

Wednesday, January 9, is National Static Electricity Day. In my research for this shocking day (glad I got that one out of the way so early), I stumbled upon the Altius Directory, which, as best I can tell, is a business service that checks the Internet for information about your business, or it sells domain names, or it posts articles about little known calendar events like National Static Electricity Day. However, after reading Altius’ posting on “National Static Electricity Day,” I knew less about static electricity than I had before I read it. A sampling of the highly entertaining article reads:

Many of us would have experienced, when we suddenly touch any metal, we experience a sudden static or shock. Sometimes as soon as we take off our hat, our hair stands straight. This especially happens in winters. Therefore, the sudden shock and the hair standing out is a result of static electricity. To know a little more about it we should be aware of a few things around us.
As we all know that everything that surrounds us is made of atom. According to scientists there are 115 pieces of atoms; therefore everything is made of atoms. (“National Static Electricity Day”)

I suspect that the author of this article is not a native English speaker. Regardless, it is abundantly clear that he/she is not a scientist.

So, what is static electricity, beside the reason for winter-time hat hair? As we all remember from primary school science, static electricity is an action that takes place at an atomic-particle level, and, as we all know from reading Altius’ website, everything is made of the 115 pieces of atoms. So, when you walk across the carpet in your socks, you gather up some atoms’ electrons on your feet. When you reach out to turn on your stereo, the negative charged electrons attract positively charged particles from the stereo (made of atom!), causing the arc that you can sometimes see, and also causing the short circuiting of your stereo because it is plugged into a non-grounded outlet. What, that doesn’t happen to you? Oh…lucky.

Most people don’t know this, but Wint-O-Green LifeSavers also produce static electricity. When you bite this particular flavor of ring-shaped mint, sparks do fly. You might not be able to see it, but it happens…particularly in the dark. This is generally believed to be caused by the mints being rubbed on a balloon before being packaged. Each ring is packed with electrons, which are discharged when they come in close contact with human teeth, which everyone knows are positively charged. It is scientifically accepted that excessive consumption of Wint-O-Green LifeSavers can force so much electrical force on the teeth that they are jarred in their sockets. Young children who eat too many LifeSavers nearly always need braces later in life.

Static electricity has also been blamed for other, more singular, disasters. It is an unconfirmed possibility that static electricity was responsible for the explosion and burning of the German airship LZ129-Hindenburg in 1936. Because the far safer gas, helium, was rare and difficult to obtain (as all Nebraska football fans know), the German designers of the Hindenburg designed it to utilize hydrogen, which is highly flammable, and in a great enough concentration and pressure can result in a giant star not unlike our Sun. Ironically, had the Germans used helium, rubbing the outside of the airship vigorously would have resulted in it sticking comically to the side of the Empire State Building, but, alas, such a scene was not possible.

So, today, eighty-three years after a tragic disaster caused by atoms, we have a day during which we, as a nation, are asked to take a moment to recognize the awesome power of “the sudden shock and the hair standing out.” After all, without static electricity, brothers and sisters the world over would have had one fewer way to torment their siblings.

God bless the atom, and God bless America!

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