Adventures in Science

"Night Carnival" (c) 2001 Bob Crosby

Even though we have been using electricity to power our gadgets, tools, and lights for over 100 years it still seems like magic. Why is that? Maybe because in our everyday lives, when electricity is being used correctly, we can’t feel it, see it, or hear it until it causes something to happen, like the toaster to heat up, the light to turn on, or the iPod to play a great song. Fortunately, just because we can’t always experience something first hand, does not mean it doesn’t exist and cannot be explained.
This will be a very basic explanation of electricity for beginners. One Giant Leap of Awesome will do another more advanced explanation of electricity in another entry.

Let’s begin!  

First of all, you need to know that the tiniest pieces of matter– the stuff that everything is made of–are called atoms. All of the matter in the universe is made up of over 100 different types of atoms.

Below, is a drawing of an atom.  Atoms are round like a dandelion puffball. They are made of two main parts. The first part is the central area called the nucleus. In the drawing below it is the small, darker grey area in the middle.  The part of the atom that causes electricity is found in the blue, fuzzy outer part in the drawing. That part is fuzzy because that is where the electrons live in the atom.

This picture is a drawing because atoms are so small we can’t see them and they are too small to get a good picture of them. 

If you visit the “Scale of the Universe” site and move the slider to the left (smaller-than-human-size direction) you will find the size of atoms and electrons between the “•v” and the drawing of a dot with ovals around it which is a cartoon atom.

Electrons are jumpy and hyper. They like to MOVE. If we had cameras small enough to take pictures of them they would still look blurry because they never sit still.

Electrons don’t just stay put on one atom either. They love to piggyback and hopscotch onto other atoms and, given the chance, they will stampede from atom to atom.  When they stampede from atom to atom we get electricity.

 Also, they are super fast! To give you an idea how fast, a flash of lightning is a GIANT electron stampede!  The entire stampede takes a split second. In that small length of time, sickzillions of electrons stream through the sky in a jagged line.

I have a confession. Sickzillions is not a real word for a huge number.* I made it up because this is just how many electrons we are talking about:


That is also known as 1.56 x 10^20 which is pronounced: one point five six times ten to the 20th power.


Electrons to the power of SICK!


The amazing thing about jumpy and unruly electrons is that we have learned to control and use them. When a stampede of electrons goes in one direction–like how the water in a river flows from high to low—they make an electric current which we can direct and tap into to work for us.  It is a bit like how people in the past learned to use the power of a river’s current to turn a paddle wheel for their grain mill. 

 One of the ways we control electricity is by using special pathways for electrons to travel through. People figured out that electrons prefer to stampede through special types of elements that became known as conductors. For example, we use copper to make pathways of electrical wiring to direct currents of electrons to power our machines.  Most of the electrical wires in our machines have copper cores.  Some other elements that electrons like to flow through are silicon, silver, lead, gold, platinum, and mercury.

Okay. So now you know that electricity is caused by tiny parts of atoms called electrons that like to hop from atom to atom and often flow together in a current. Part 2 of “What is electricity?” will explain what causes the jumpy and hyperfast electrons to stampede.

*I think that number above would officially be in the hexillions.