# an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

## What is electricity? part 1 – static electricity, mostly

Canto: So it seems we’ve been here before but we’re back at the beginning again, because we’re still largely ignorant. And sadly, even if we finally get a handle on this complex phenomenon, we’ll be likely to forget it again through disuse, and then we’ll die.

Jacinta: So let me begin as naively as possible. Electricity is this energy source, or comes from this energy source, which travels through a wire by some kind of force that excites the electrons in the wire, which then oscillate and create an energy transfer along the wire, to a connector to a light bulb or a toaster, and when a switch connects the wire to the toaster it heats up your bread. But electricity doesn’t have to travel though a wire because I think lightning is electricity, but it needs a conducting material, which in the case of lightning is probably water vapour. I’ve heard somewhere that water is quite a good conductor of electricity.

Canto: Well, all that may or may not be true but what is voltage, what is current and why are certain materials conductors, and superconductors, electrically speaking, and what is an electric field? And I’ve heard that electrons really do flow in a wire, rather than just oscillating, though I’ve no idea what to make of that.

Jacinta: My next step is to look for experts, and to try to put their explanations into my own words, for ownership purposes. So I went to the ‘expert site’, Quora, and found quite a few contradictory or confusing responses, but assuming that the response that comes up first is some kind of popularly selected ‘best’ response, I’ll focus on Anthony Yeh’s answer. Oh by the way, the question is something like ‘what do electrons actually do in an electrical circuit?’ – though even that requires prior knowledge of what an electrical circuit actually is.

Canto: So let’s see if we can bed down the concept of an electrical circuit. So a website called ‘all about circuits’ gives us the basics, starting with static electricity. This was probably woman’s first discovery relating to the electrickery thing. Two different materials rubbed together – glass and silk, wax and wool – created this stickiness, this attraction to each other. And then it was noticed that, after the rubbing, the identical materials, such as two glass rods, exerted a force against each other. And another observation was that the wax, after rubbing with the wool, and the rod after rubbing with the silk, attracted each other.

Jacinta: Yes, this must’ve seemed quite bizarre to first discoverers. And they found that it worked as a sort of law. If the item was attracted by glass it would be repelled by wax – that’s to say, two rubbed wax cloths would always repel each other, as would the two rubbed glass rods. Which led to speculation about what was going on. The materials didn’t appear to be altered in any way. But they behaved differently after rubbing. Seemed like some invisible, quasi-magic force was in operation.

Canto: One of the earliest speculators that we know about was Charles du Fay (1698-1739). Note the dates – we’re really into the period inspired by Galileo, Newton and Huygens, the early days of theoretical and experimental physics. He separated the force involved into two, which he called vitreous and resinous. They were at first thought to be caused by invisible attractive and repulsive fluids. They later came to be known as positive and negative charges.

Jacinta: But when Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) came to experiment with what became known as electricity, it was still thought of as a fluid…

Canto: But hang on – this static electricity stuff must go back way earlier. Sparks fly, and you feel the energy on your skin when you remove, say, a piece of nylon clothing. And you see the sparks in the dark. I get it from metal door-handles quite regularly, and you can actually see it – it ain’t no fluid. Surely they noticed this way more than a couple of hundred years ago.

Jacinta: Okay let’s go back thousands of years, to Thales of Miletus, about 600 BCE. I’m using Quora again here. He noticed that rubbed amber was able to attract stuff, like leaves and other ground debris. Theophrastus, a student of Plato and Aristotle, who took over Aristotle’s Lyceum, also left some notes on this phenomenon, but this didn’t get any further than observation. William Gilbert (1544-1603), a much under-rated genius whom I read about in Thomas Crump’s  A brief history of science, wrote a treatise, On the magnet, which compared the attractive, magnetic properties of lodestones with the properties of rubbed amber. He called this property ‘electric’, after elektron, the Greek word for amber. He also built the first electroscope, a simple needle that pivots toward an electrically charged body. Gilbert was able to distinguish between a magnet, which always remained a magnet, that’s to say, an attracter of metals, and an electrically charged material, which could easily lose its charge. So we’re now into the 17th century, and very far from understanding the phenomenon. The first electrical machine was constructed by Otto von Guericke (1602-86), another interesting polymath, in 1660. It was a rotating globe of sulphur, which attracted light material, creating sparks. Nothing new of course, but a useful public demonstration model.

Canto: So we’re now getting to a period when a few enlightened folks were set to wondering. And this was when they must’ve noted the phenomenon’s small-scale similarity to lightning.

Jacinta: Yes, and so experiments with lightning were undertaken in the eighteenth century, generally with disastrous results. The fact is, though Ben Franklin did do some experimentation with kites and lightning, he mainly focused on glass and amber rods. He noted, as before, that there were two different forces, or charges, attractive and repulsive. When a rubbed amber rod was brought toward another rubbed amber rod they repulsed each other. When the same amber rod was brought toward a glass rod, they were attracted. He considered there were two opposite aspects of the same fluid (for some reason investigators – at least some of them – was still thinking in terms of fluids). The identical aspects of the fluid repelled, while the opposite aspects attracted. He decided, apparently quite arbitrarily, to name one (glass) positive, the other (amber) negative. And we’ve been stuck with this designation ever since..

Canto: Yes, I’ve heard that it would have been much better to name them the other way round, but I’ve no idea why. And also, why is all this called static electricity? Obviously that name came later, but what does it mean? We hear people saying ‘I’m getting a lot of static’, which seems to mean some kind of interference with a signal, but I’ve no idea why it’s called that.

Jacinta: Oh shite, we’ll never get to the bottom of all this. Here’s a Wikipedia definition, which might help:

Static electricity is an imbalance of electric charges within or on the surface of a material. The charge remains until it is able to move away by means of an electric current or electrical discharge. Static electricity is named in contrast with current electricity, which flows through wires or other conductors and transmits energy

Canto: Okay, that helps. Static electricity ‘remains’ – it has to be discharged. So lightning is a discharge of static electricity?

Jacinta: I believe so, and that spark you get from the car doorhandle is a discharge of the static electricity built up in your body. Now let’s return to the online textbook ‘All about Circuits’. It points out that Ben Franklin did have a reason for his positive-negative designation. Here’s a quote:

Following Franklin’s speculation of the wool rubbing something off of the wax, the type of charge that was associated with rubbed wax became known as “negative” (because it was supposed to have a deficiency of fluid) while the type of charge associated with the rubbing wool became known as “positive” (because it was supposed to have an excess of fluid). Little did he know that his innocent conjecture would cause much confusion for students of electricity in the future!

Canto: Okay, I’m not sure whether this is a headfuck. When wax is rubbed with wool they attract each other. Franklin thought in terms of fluids, and he conjectured that, in the rubbing, the wool removed fluid from the wax – so wool had an excess of the fluid, and wax had a deficiency. The deficiency, which of course wasn’t really a deficiency, he termed ‘negative’ and the excess was ‘positive’. Sort of makes sense. Though why people since have felt this is the wrong way round, I don’t get at this stage.

Jacinta: So now we come to Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (1736-1806), and I suspect we’ll be dwelling on him for a while, because ‘All about circuits’ deals with him rather cursorily, methinks. It tells us that Coulomb experimented with electricity in the 1780s using a ‘torsional balance’ (wtf?) to measure the force generated between two electrically charged objects.

Canto: Exquisitely meaningless at this stage. Anyway, onward and downward…

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_François_de_Cisternay_du_Fay

https://www.quora.com/What-were-static-electricity-shocks-believe-to-be-during-antiquity-and-the-Middle-Ages

Thomas Crump, A brief history of science, 2001

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Static_electricity

Written by stewart henderson

November 28, 2021 at 8:52 pm

Posted in electricity, electrons

## towards James Clerk Maxwell: 1 – a bit about magnetism

Canto: So what do you know about magnetism?

Jacinta: Well not a lot but I’m hoping to learn a lot. Some metals – but perhaps it’s only iron – appear to be attracted by other metals – or other bits of iron – so that they’re pulled together and are hard to pull apart, depending on the strength of the magnetism, which is apparently some kind of force. And I believe it’s related to electricity.

Canto: We shall learn more together. All this enquiry stems from a perhaps vague interest in James Clerk Maxwell, who famously connected electricity and magnetism in an equation, or a series of equations, or laws, with a great deal of mathematical sophistication, which I don’t have. Maxwell is hardly a household name in the way that Newton and Einstein are, but he’s undoubtedly revered among mathematical physicists. My own interest is twofold – I’d like to understand more about physics and maths in general, and – I’m Scottish, sort of. That is, I was born there and grew up among Scottish customs, though I’ve lived in Australia since I was five, and I always like to say that I haven’t a nationalist cell in my body. I’ve never waved a flag or sung any of those naff national anthems, and I have dual British/Australian citizenship only as a matter of convenience – and I suppose the more nations I could become a citizen of, the more convenient it would be. And yet. I’ve always felt ‘something extra’ in noting the Scottish contribution to the sciences and the life of the mind. James Hutton, Charles Lyell, James Watt, Adam Ferguson, David Hume and Adam Smith are names I’ve learned with a glimmer of unwonted or irrational pride over the years, though my knowledge of their achievements is in some cases very limited. And that limitation is perhaps most extreme in the case of Maxwell.

Jacinta: So we’ll get back to him later. There are good, easily available videos on all matters scientific these days, so I’ve looked at a few on magnetism, and have learned a few things. Magnetism apparently occurs when the atoms in a block of material are all aligned in the same direction, because atoms themselves are like tiny magnets, they’re polarised with a north and south pole, which I think has something to do with ionisation, maybe. Most materials have their atoms aligned in an infinity of orientations, with a net effect of no magnetism. Don’t quote me on that. The Earth itself is a gigantic magnet with a north and south pole. If it wasn’t, then the solar wind, which is a plasma of charged particles, would strip away the ozone that protects us from UV radiation. Because that field is sucked in at the poles, we see that plasma in the northern and southern latitudes, e.g. the northern lights. We now know that magnetism is essential to our existence – light itself is just a form of electromagnetic radiation (I think). But what we first learned about this stuff was pretty meagre. There were these rocks called lodestones, actually iron ore (magnetite), which attracted iron objects – swords and other tools of the iron age. What was this invisible force? It was named magnetism, after the region of Magnesia in what’s now modern Greece, where presumably lots of these lodestones were to be found. Early discoveries about magnetism showed that it could be useful in navigation…

Canto: But that wasn’t too early – there’s something of a gap between the discussions in Aristotle and Hippocrates and the 12th century realisation that a magnetic needle could be used for navigation. At least in Europe. The Chinese were well ahead in that regard. But I should stop here and say that if we’re going to arrive at Maxwell, it’s going to be a long, though undoubtedly fascinating road, with a few detours, and sometimes we might move ahead and turn back, and we’ll meet many brilliant characters along the way. And, who knows, we may never even arrive at Maxwell, and of course we shouldn’t assume that Maxwell is at the summit of all this.

Jacinta: So the first extant treatise on magnets was the Epistola de Magnete, by Petrus Peregrinus, aka Pete the Pilgrim, in 1269. It was described as a letter but it contained 13 chapters of weighty reading. The first 10 chapters apparently describe the laws of magnetism, a clear indication that such laws were already known. He describes magnetic induction, how magnetism can be induced in a piece of iron, such as a needle, by a lodestone. He writes about polarity, being the first to use the term ‘pole’ in this way – in writing at least. He noted that like poles repel and unlike poles attract, and he wrote of a south pole and a north pole. That’s to say, one end of a needle points north when given its head – for example when suspended in water. He also describes the ‘dry’ pivoted compass, which was clearly well in use by that time.

Canto: What he didn’t know was why a needle points north – actually magnetic north, which isn’t the same as the north pole – but close enough for most navigational purposes. He didn’t know that the Earth was a magnet.

Jacinta: On compass needles, there’s a neat essay online on how compasses are made. I’m not sure about how GPS is making compasses obsolete these days, but it’s a bit of a shame if it’s true…

Canto: So the next name, apart from the others, to associate with work on magnets was William Gilbert, who published De Magnete in 1600. This gathered together previous knowledge on the subject along with his own experimental work. One of the important things he noted, taken from the 1581 work The Newe Attractive, by Robert Norman, was magnetic inclination or dip, probably first noted by the Bavarian engineer and mathematician Georg Hartmann in the mid sixteenth century. This dip from the horizontal, either upward (steepest at the south pole) or downward (north pole) is a result of the Earth’s magnetic field, which doesn’t run parallel to the surface. Inspired by Norman’s work, Gilbert conducted experiments with a model Earth he made, concluding that the Earth was a magnet, and that its core, or centre, was made of iron…

Jacinta: Just how did he he work that out? Did he think that a bar magnet passed through the centre of the Earth from north to south pole?

Canto: I don’t think so, it’s probably more like he thought of Earth as a gigantic spherical lodestone with iron at its centre. It’s understandable that he would infer iron to be inside the Earth to make it magnetic, but he was the first to give a geocentric cause for the behaviour of compass needles – others had thought the attractive force was celestial. Interestingly, Gilbert was also a Copernican, in that he thought it absurd that the stars, which he believed to be vastly distant, revolved around the Earth. So he argued that the Earth turned, a view that got Galileo into so much trouble a few decades later.

Jacinta: Useful to be a Protestant in those times. Thank Dog for Henry VIII.

Canto: He also took an interest in what was later called electricity, though he didn’t consider it connected to magnetism. He built a versorium, the first electroscope, used to detect static electric charge. It was simply a metallic needle pivoted on a pedestal, like a compass needle but not magnetised. The needle would move towards a statically charged object, such as rubbed amber. In fact, Gilbert’s experiments strove to prove that static electricity was distinct from magnetism, which was an important development in early modern science.

Jacinta: I suppose we’re going to learn exactly what ‘static’ electricity is and how it fits in the over-all picture?

Canto: We shall try, though I shudder to think about what we’re embarking on here.

Jacinta: And I shudder to think about what cannot possibly be avoided – mathematics.

Canto: Well, yes, as we enter the 17th century, we’ll be encountering some great mathematical developments – with figures like Descartes, Pascal, Fermat, Liebniz and Newton all adding their weighty contributions to Galileo’s claim that nature is a book written in the language of mathematics.

Jacinta: Shit, I’m having a hard enough time trying to understand this stuff in English.

Canto: Hopefully it’ll be a great and rewarding adventure, and on the way we’ll learn about Coulomb’s inverse-square law, which is central to electrostatics. Meanwhile, it seems not much was added to our understanding of magnetism for a couple of hundred years, until Hans Ørsted’s more or less accidental discovery in 1819 that an electric current could create a magnetic field, by noting that a compass needle moved when placed near an electrified wire. Alessandro Volta had invented the voltaic pile, or battery, twenty years earlier, leading to a pile of electrical experiments in subsequent years.

Jacinta: But we’ll have to go back to the eighteenth century or beyond to trace developments in electricity before Ørsted’s finding brought the two fields together. And maybe we’ll look at the mathematics of
Charles-Augustin de Coulomb and others in the process. Let’s face it, we can’t progress towards Maxwell without doing so.

Canto: Tragic but true.

Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2019 at 1:37 pm