Static Electricity

I was at a medical conference in Toronto recently and one of the speakers cited the work of a physician named Dr. Hu in her talk.  After the talk was over, the moderator thanked the speaker and then said, “We have to get Doctor Hu here.”

Unbidden, the following conversation immediately popped into my head:

“We have to get Doctor Hu here.”

“Doctor Who?”

“Yeah, Hu.”

“Doctor Yahoo?”

“No. Doctor Hu.”

“Ohhh… Doctor Hu here!”

“No, not Doctor Huhear.  Doctor Hu. Here.”

“When?”

“Now! And then we need to dispense with these ridiculously short sentences and get on with the main topic of this column.”

“Is there ever a main topic?”

“Rarely”

Now that I have that off my chest, I have to talk about a book by Bill Bryson that I’ve been reading lately entitled: At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York. Doubleday, 2010.  Like all Bryson’s books, At Home is written with wonderfully dry, witty humor, and it’s packed with fascinating trivia.

bryson-at-home

In Chapter 11, which is in no way bankrupt(!) of trivia, Bryson launches into a discussion of mousetraps, mice, bedbugs, bats, rabies and last but not least, rats.  He cites this example of their ingenuity:

“Rats are smart and often work cooperatively. At the former Gansevoort poultry market in Greenwich Village, New York, pest control authorities could not understand how rats were stealing eggs without breaking them, so one night an exterminator sat in hiding to watch. What he saw was that one rat would embrace an egg with all four legs, then roll over on his back. A second rat would then drag the first rat by its tail to their burrow, where they could share their prize in peace.”

I really, really wanted to believe that story, but at the same time, the urban legend warning light in my brain started flashing, just like it did when I read about the intoxicated Marine who was supposedly arrested after a failed attempt to foil his car ignition interlock by having a raccoon breathe into it. (Craggy Island Calculus Problem)  I knew that one wasn’t true.  Turns out both the Marine AND the raccoon were drunk.

Anyway, back to the pilfering rats. I did what everybody does these days when we want to find out if something is true: I Googled “rats carrying eggs” and sure enough, I came up with that sketch you see up top, which was penciled by English naturalist and sportsman Charles William George St. John (b.1809-d.1856). Various webpages have reproduced that drawing including one in which a guy named Michael claims that his Aunt Mavis told him, “That’s exactly how rats steal eggs in England!” (What Aunt Mavis said)

But I was still suspicious.  After all, in Charlotte’s Web, the spider Charlotte had to move heaven and earth to get just one rat named Templeton to cooperate with her in saving Wilbur’s life.  I just couldn’t picture three rats  teaming up and then amicably sharing the booty.  Plus, I thought surely if rats really use one of their mates as a sort of travois during criminal activities, someone would have caught it on video by now, posted it on YouTube and it would have 83 million hits and counting, as I type.

After some more rooting around with Google, I didn’t find what I was looking for; however, I did find a clip in which a lone sumo wrestler-sized rat named Ossi  picked up an egg, bit into it, and then scampered up to its lair with the egg leading the way, impaled by Ossi’s front teeth. (Ossi the rat pilfering an egg)

But this really didn’t prove anything. For example, just because you see someone wearing a kilt, it doesn’t disprove that they couldn’t also wear a small patch of absorbent material on their forehead sometimes.  Because they could.  If they really wanted to.  No one would care.  Just saying.

dr-mcgillson
Dr. McGillson
sweat-patch-middle-of-forehead
Don’t ask

Finally though, after more Google-rooting, I found a pretty definitive statement on this page (Rats aren’t as clever as we would like them to be) dedicated to the identification of British egg thieves .  Here is what it said about rats:

Rats
  • Rats prefer the large, cryptic eggs of colonial nesting birds and consume the eggs in the nest.
  • They make a hole in the side or end of the egg with characteristic chip marks, then lick out the contents.
  • Squirrel signs are very similar.
  • A common myth is that rats co-operate to steal hens’ eggs – one lies on its back, holding the egg to its chest, while another rat pulls out the content with its tail. This is not true.

Well I guess that’s that.  But at least I’m now at a place where I can talk about static electricity.  One of the reasons why I was a little suspicious about this whole rats-teaming-up-to-steal-eggs thing is that the sledge rat would probably accumulate some serious static electricity if it’s furry, egg-laden body was rubbing along on a wooden, glass or worst-case, rubber floor.

Now as kids, we all quickly learned to rub balloons against our clothes or heads, then stick them (the balloons) on a wall, a cat or each other.  We learned even more quickly that if we inflated the balloons first, it worked even better!  We asked our grandmas how that all worked.  Mine said, “How the hell do I know?  I’m eighty-three years old; I was born in a small village about 60 miles south of Sparta, in Greece; we moved to Detroit when I was about seven years old and it took me a long time to learn English, never mind Electrostatics.  Go ask your mother.”

But somehow we all eventually learned that static buildup is due to electron transfer between two different insulators such as T-shirts and cat hair, or leather and rubber.  The transfer is increased if the two materials rub together.  A big van de Graaf generator, which uses this principle (dissimilar things rubbing together), can build up an electric potential of hundreds of  thousands of volts.

Check this out. I think  these two people are standing on big van de Graaf generators.  I’m soooo jealous.

lordsoflightning

Here are some schematics showing how a van de Graaf generator works:

van-de-graaf-generator

 van_de_graaf_generator

If you think that the schematic on the left looks an awful lot like a vertical treadmill, you are correct!  Alert readers know that I have a treadmill desk (Treadmill Desks).  Jimmie Kimmell apparently also has one.  He may  wear a kilt occasionally.  I don’t know for sure.  It looks like he has on a pair of shorts in the picture below.  It might be a skort though.  Again, just saying.

jimmy-kimmel-on-treadmill

One thing I do know for sure is that my treadmill works exactly like a van de Graaf generator, and the reason I know this is that one day, when things got colder here in Calgary (and hence drier) I was talking on my desk phone as I was walking, and then I started getting zapped in the ear every few seconds.  The built-up charge was finding its way to ground by arcing across to the earpiece of the phone. Then the display screen on the phone blanked out.

Awhile later I got a pretty good lifter when a spark lanced from my fingertip into my computer mouse, right by the scroll-wheel.  After that the scroll-wheel quit working.

Then for some reason I decided to increase the speed of the treadmill and suddenly there was a loud SNAP! and my heart stopped.  Just for a few seconds though. I was fine.  Really.  Didn’t miss a beat! And  I’m getting way better range with my new all-electric car now, for some reason.

Tesla RMA.JPG
Tesla Model S

As soon as the grounded wrist strap  I ordered gets here, it’s all good.

wrist-strap

Meanwhile, I have a grounded rod I can hang on to, need be.  It looks a little weird though, and another downside is that I can’t play the bagpipes if one hand is hanging on to a grounded rod all day. But the upside is that the friction (!) between me and my co-workers has diminished considerably.

My grandmother always told me you can’t stay grounded AND play the bagpipes.  And if you don’t believe her, just ask this physicist.  I’ll bet he knows a lot about Electrostatics.

bagpipes-in-space
Bagpipes in low-Earth orbit

Author:

Dave Barry fan and Medical Director at Rocky Mountain Analytical

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