TECH & SCIENCE
ELECTRICITY. You use it every day to power your lights, keep your fridge running, charge your phone, turn on your computer, start up your car, and a thousand other things, but how much do you actually know about one of the greatest marvels of the modern world?
If you aren’t an electrician, a physicist, or a science teacher, there’s a fair chance you know just enough about it to turn on a light switch and prevent yourself from being electrocuted whilst operating a toaster.
But fear not, for this week we’ll endeavor to rectify this shortcoming of knowledge by exploring some interesting facts, and some obscure facts, about electricity.
1. Electricity was never invented. It was discovered.
This important distinction is something that is often misunderstood, not just when it comes to talking about electricity, but a vari- ety of scientific disciplines.
The difference between invention and discovery is that humans can invent something which does not already exist in nature, while they discover something which already exists in nature. Electricity is actually a type of energy that is present in nature and hence, it was discovered and not invented.
2. Benjamin Franklin didn’t discover electricity
While Franklin is often given credit for the discovery, this is simply false.
While he conducted a series of very important experiments regarding the relationship between electricity and lightning, the discovery of electricity predates him by millenia.
3. The ancient Greeks discovered static electricity
Ancient Greek scholars who lived around 600 B.C. discovered the fact that if amber and fur were rubbed together, they would attract one an- other - eureka, static electricity.
On top of this, in the 1930’s archaeologists discovered ancient Roman pots that had been wrapped in copper sheets, which scientists believe were actually proto-batteries.
It is believed these batteries were used for the purpose of electroplating coins and other objects of value.
4. Just what is electricity?
To understand the fundamentals of electricity, we need to begin by focusing in on atoms.
An atom is built with a combination of three distinct particles: electrons, protons, and neutrons. Each atom has a center nucleus, where the protons and neutrons are densely packed together. Surrounding the nucleus are a group of orbiting electrons.
Electrons are critical to the workings of electricity - the astute will notice a common theme in their names. In its most stable, balanced state, an atom will have the same number of electrons as protons.
Electricity itself is generated by the flow of electric charge (‘charge’ being a property of both protons - which have a positive charge, and electrons - which have a negative charge).
In order to move charge we need charge carriers, and that’s where our knowledge of atomic particles – specifically electrons and protons – comes in handy.
The charge of electrons and protons is important, because it provides us the means to exert a force on them - electrostatic force.
Electrostatic force (also called Coulomb’s law) is a force that operates between charges.
It states that charges of the same type repel each other, while charges of opposite types are attracted together.
Opposites attract, and likes repel. To generate electricity, enough electrostatic force must be exerted on an electron to free it from one atom, and move to another.
Now consider a copper wire: matter filled with countless copper atoms.
As our free electron is floating in a space between atoms, it’s pulled and prodded by surrounding charges in that space.
In this chaos the free electron eventually finds a new atom to latch on to; in doing so, the negative charge of that electron ejects another electron from the atom.
Now a new electron is drifting through free space looking to do the same thing.
This chain effect can continue on and on to create a flow of electrons called ‘electric current’.
And Voila, you have electricity.
Check out next week’s article for more interesting facts about electricity.
BRIGHT SPARK: While Benjamin Franklin is most often credited with the discovery of electricity, this is actually false. Mankind has been zapping themselves for science since the time of the ancient Greeks.