WHERE MAGIC AND SCIENCE MEET
The hard facts of science stand on one side of the universe. On the other side lies the domain of illusion. The thin line dividing these realms is an electric wire hooked up to your fuse box.
It sounds like the Twilight Zone, yet electricity is one of the most compelling and mysterious forces in modern life. It powers everything we do. It makes our toast at breakfast. It starts our cars to get us to work in the morning. It warms our evenings when we come home. It lights the streets at night. Like a magician who produces a bouquet of flowers from out of nowhere, it appears to do all this without motivating force.
Electricity seems like magic because you can't see what is making it go. I can understand the mechanics of a hockey puck bouncing off a goalie's face mask. That's easy. But the more subtle mysteries are harder to explain. How does a light bulb burn? or Why does my wife invariably give me that come-hither look after dinner on Monday nights? She knows very well I have to watch football until one o'clock in the morning.
Ironically, that come-hither look explains a lot about electricity. You see; electricity is generated in the same way babies are made: by rubbing together two mutually attractive bodies. In the case of electricity, the rubbing is done by magnetic fields. One field is placed within the other and spun at high speeds. The product of this vigorous action is drawn through a conduit to the appliance where it performs its operative function.
I know what you are thinking. It is fine to say, "Spin this; do that, and presto, you have electricity. What I really want to understand is how it works on an atomic scale."
Lucky for you, I have a simple answer: electricity is merely the movement of electrons from one atom to the next.
Let me see if I can explain it by analogy.
Imagine, if you will, Christmas dinner at Aunt Sue's. Present are her son and his new wife. Sue has also graciously invited the daughter-in-law's parents. The quartet of grandparents sits in a circle trying to think of something nice or interesting to say. One looks at the ceiling, two into a blazing fire and the last twiddles her thumbs.
After several false starts, they find a topic of discussion in the person of their mutual grandchild who is three months old. They each want to hold the child. Aunt Sue gets the child first. She bounces little Buddy on her knee and is rewarded with laughing eyes and cute cooing sounds. Auntie is momentarily distracted. Her husband's unflattering description of how Sue slobbers in bed just like little Buddy accompanied by a very accurate imitation of her snoring prompts her to deny her husband's claims and send him cross looks.
Meanwhile, Baby Buddy adopts a concentrated attitude. His brow furrows and his jaw stiffens. However, this is a transitory posture. By the time Aunt Sue returns her attention to Buddy, his expression has gone back to normal. She proceeds to bounce again. However, her reward this time is not confined to a smile and a coo. Her nose tells her there is something far more sinister happening with Buddy. Suddenly, she is anxious for the OTHER grandma to have a chance to play with the precious infant.
The other grandma is no fool. She quickly passes off the child to her husband, whose ability to discern the presence of noxious odors may be diminishing but is not altogether gone. He fairly tosses the child into the arms of the final grandparent who calls out, "Margie, come and get your son. He's got poopoo pants!" Margie, being the dutiful mother, collects her son and drearily does her civic duty.
As you may have gathered: the grandparents are copper atoms in a piece of wire; Buddy is an electron; the poopoo is an electric charge; and poor Margie is a light bulb condemned to forever changing Baby Buddy's poopoo pants.
Now that you understand electricity, let us look at how this force is harnessed for the benefit of mankind.