Thursday, January 7, 2010

Fairy sparkles

In winter, I get dressed in the dark.

This morning, I got dressed in clothes that were tumbling in the dryer just minutes before--my t-shirt sparkled and crackled with static electricity.

I wanted to see what that would look like if I put the t-shirt on with my eyes open.

My eyelids must have gotten charged up, because right after I screwed my head through the neckhole, a bright sparkle arced across my left eyelashes, bright enough to startle me.

If I didn't know any better, I'd bless the fairies that danced near my face. (And I don't know any better, so I did.)

We call it "static electricity." I thought about voltages and arcs and other nonsense that hardly explains what I saw, then I thought about what I saw.

I didn't see volts. I saw bright blue flashes undulating under the cotton, heard the crackling.

While it is fun to think of ridiculously high voltages (thousands!) involved when electricity arcs across my eyelashes--just the sort of pseudoscience nonsense we toss at kids in class--"knowing" the voltage had no effect on what I observed.

If I ever get my physical science classes back, that will be one of my assignments--grab clothes out of the dryer on a cold, dry day, and get dressed in the dark.

I'll leave out the blessing part. I bet some of them do anyway.

Lightning photo by MONDO,via wikimedia, released to public


John Spencer said...

Was the term electricity scientific first and then later became a commodity?

If so, when it was initially science, did they explain it in a mechanical process with an underlying metaphor of machine (the same metaphor many of the Enlightenment thinkers used)? Or was the metaphor more organic (a less predictable, more fluid, unstable process)?

Did it cease to be mysterious when we discovered how it worked or when we turned it into something we can extract?

I'm not a man of science, so I don't even know if my questions make any sense.

doyle said...

The term "electricity" comes from the Greek word for amber; electricity was a known phenomenom for ages, long before it got its common name today.

Great questions, but I would have to go peek to give you a real answer.

It's still mysterious, in the same sense gravity is mysterious. It's not something so much extracted as transformed--one form of energy to another. Spin a magnet inside a coil of copper and you can convert kinetic energy into electricity.

The metaphor/model of electrons is not that of a machine--it's more like that of a river. The rate of flow would be amps, the potential for flow would be voltage. (Think of a dam--you can block the flow, but you have a huge potential for flow.)

Not sure I am making much sense. I am absolutely mesmerized by electricity. i can play with a hand-cranked generator for hours.

John Spencer said...

I assumed that it became "mechanical" when we began producing electrical engineers. Perhaps "extract" is not the right word. Pull apart? Dissect? We certainly used our "knowledge" of electricity for commercial potential.

doyle said...

Dear John,

Electricity, like any usable form of energy, is not so much extracted as transformed from some other (possibly useful) form of energy, unless you're talking nuclear, where mass is converted into energy, in which case energy been "extracted," which is then transformed into a form such as electricity we use for work.

We can tame things without having a clue how they work (electricity and lions, for example).

nashworld said...

This reminds me of the first time I swam in a tropical sea at night... along with six students and a sailboat captain.

Upon reaching the dinghy, we all stopped, and prior to getting out of the water and into the brisk midnight air, we all turned our flashlights off and sunk our heads into the inky blackness.

What transpired in the next five minutes or so was still one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. A wave of my fingers before my face created loose streaks of brilliant fairy dust before my eyes.

Lying in my berth that night -awaiting sleep- I wondered which was more beautiful: the fact that I could explain this enzymatic biomagic in some detail... or the fact that in the moment... it didn't really matter.

It takes a pretty big moment to convince a "green" personality like mine into being more enthralled with a "what" than a "why." I think we live for such nerve-naked moments. The rest may just be filler.

Theresa Milstein said...

That reminds me of when my friends and I would rub balloons against our hair to make the hairs stand on end.

And helium balloons changing our voices were fantastically funny. The best part was releasing a balloon and straining our eyes to see them float until they disappeared.

There were reasons for all those occurrences, but to me it was magic.

doyle said...

Dear Sean,

Great story, and impossible to truly know without living it. (Even when immersed in the night sea, it's impossible to truly describe in words--it just is.)

We live immersed in "nerve-naked moments" (another phrase of yours I am going to assimilate). Our words may indeed just be fillers.

If I can stay focused on the moment, I feel more alive (because I am more alive, though I suspect I'd be a but less productive). Keeping close to the sea keeps me from plunging completely into the artificial world that calls me like sirens away from stuff that truly matters. The sea reminds me I am mortal, no matter what the Fortune 500 Gods say.

Dear Theresa,

"Magic" is a slippery word, and sometimes we empirical sorts dismiss it too quickly. None of us knows electricity, though we can see its effects.

We get seduced by our own models into believing we grasp the unknowable (quarks, God, whatever--the unknowable is just that).