Static Electricity

If you’ve ever walked across carpet in your socks, touched a door knob and received a tiny shock, you’ve experienced static electricity firsthand. Static electricity is not something people tend to think about until right after a jolt from a doorknob, pet or metal household appliance. While these effects are very small and somewhat unimpressive, static electricity can also take the form of the beautiful, yet dangerous, natural light shows known as lightning.

Lightning is, of course, the balancing out of charges between the atmosphere and the ground below. Because of the differences in charges between the atoms in the air and on the ground, sometimes violent transfers seen miles away can occur. To understand why this happens, one must first examine the charges of atoms.

Protons, neutrons and electrons are very different from each other. They have their own properties, or characteristics. One of these properties is called an electrical charge. Protons have what we call a positive charge. Electrons have a negative charge. Neutrons have no charge, they are neutral. The charge of one proton is equal in strength to the charge of one electron. When the number of protons in an atom equals the number of electrons, the atom itself has no overall charge, it is neutral.

The protons and neutrons in the nucleus are held together very tightly. Normally the nucleus does not change. But some of the outer electrons are held very loosely. They can move from one atom to another. An atom that looses electrons has more positive charges than negative charges. It is positively charged. An atom that gains electrons has more negative than positive particles. It has a negative charge. A charged atom is called an ion.

Two things with opposite, or different charges (a positive and a negative) will attract, or pull towards each other. Things with the same charge (two positives or two negatives) will repel, or push away from each other. Because of this, when you walk across the carpet, picking up extra electrons as you go through friction, these added electrons will search for the first possible opportunity to transfer them to another object in an effort to balance itself out and return to a neutral charge.

In yourself as in nature, everything seeks to remain neutral. From bad hair days to shocks from door knobs, we have all experienced this. Although it’s uncomfortable, it’s a normal process of our daily lives.