MISCON ELECTRICITY ARTICLES NEW STUFF GOOD STUFF SEARCH

What Is "Electricity"?

(c)1996 William J. Beaty
Electrical Engineer
Follow
wbeaty on Twitter

SEE ALSO:
  • Scientific definition of Electricity
  • Famous scientists' quotations
  • Electricity is not Energy
  • What is electricity, REALLY?!
  • What is electricity? This question is impossible to answer because the word "Electricity" has several contradictory meanings. These different meanings are incompatible, and the contradictions confuse everyone. If you don't understand electricity, you're not alone. Even teachers, engineers, and scientists have a hard time grasping the concept.

    Obviously "electricity" cannot be several different things at the same time. Unfortunately we have defined the word Electricity in a crazy way. Because the word "electricity" lacks one distinct meaning, we can never pin down the nature of electricity. In the end we are forced to declare that there's no such stuff as "electricity" at all! Here's a quick example to illustrate the problem.

    Do generators make electricity? To answer this question, consider the household light bulb. Inside a lamp cord the charges (the electrons) sit in one place and wiggle back and forth. That's AC or alternating current. At the same time, the waves of electromagnetic field move rapidly forward. This wave-energy does not wiggle, instead it races along the wires as it flows from the distant generators and into the light bulb. OK, now ask yourself this: when "electricity" is flowing, is it called an Electric Current? Yes? If so, then electricity is charge, since an electric current is a flow of charge. And therefore we must say that the "electricity" sits inside the wires and vibrates back and forth. Generators do not create it, and it does not flow forward. Next, ask yourself if electricity is a form of energy. If it's energy, then instead, electricity is made of electromagnetic fields, and it doesn't wiggle back and forth within the AC cables. Generators do create it, and it races along the wires at high speed. But electricity cannot do both! Which one is really "the electricity?" Is it the wiggling electrons, or is it the high-speed EM field energy? The experts unfortunately cannot agree on a single definition. The reference books give conflicting answers, so there *is* no answer.
    If someone asks whether generators make electricity, it exposes a great flaw in the way we talk about "electricity". If we can repair this flaw, perhaps our explanations will finally make sense.

    Below are the five most common meanings of the word Electricity. Which one do you think is right? Think about this carefully, because if one of these meanings is correct, all the others must be wrong! After all, no "science term" must ever possess several conflicting definitions. Unfortunately our dictionaries and encyclopedias contain all of these contradictions. (Click the links to find out more about each.)


    1. The scientist's definition: "Electricity" means only one thing: quantities of electricity are measured in Coulombs, so "electricity" is the electrons and protons; the electric charge.
    Examples: CURRENT OF ELECTRICITY. QUANTITY OF ELECTRICITY. COULOMBS OF ELECTRICITY.
    2. The everyday definition: "Electricity" means only one thing: the electromagnetic field energy sent out by batteries and generators.
    Examples: PRICE OF ELECTRICITY. KILOWATT-HOURS OF ELECTRICITY.
    3. The grade-school definition: "Electricity" means only one thing: it refers to the flowing motion of electric charge.
    Examples: "CURRENT" ELECTRICITY. AMPERES OF ELECTRICITY.
    4. "Electricity" means only one thing: it refers to the amount of imbalance between quantities of electrons and protons.
    Example: "STATIC" ELECTRICITY. DISCHARGE OF ELECTRICITY.
    5. "Electricity" is nothing other than the classes of phenomena involving electric charges.
    Examples: BIOELECTRICITY, PIEZOELECTRICITY, TRIBOELECTRICITY, THERMOELECTRICITY, ATMOSPHERIC ELECTRICITY ...ETC.
    6. Other less common definitions:
    "Electricity" refers to the flowing motion of electrical energy (electric power, Watts of electricity)
    "Electricity" really means the electric potential or e-field (Volts of electricity)
    "Electricity" only means the glowing nitrogen/oxygen plasma (sparks of electricity)
    "Electricity" is nothing but a field of science (Basic Electricity, Advanced Electricity)


    ELECTRICITY, n.
    The power that causes all natural phenomena not known to be caused by something else.
    <grin!>
    (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911)


    If we wish to agree on a single correct definition of "electricity," which definition should we choose? The Scientific version, number one above? But that would mean that all of our books are wrong, since books insist that electricity is the energy, or that electricity is the current. Except for the CRC Handbook and the NIST SI physics standards, the textbooks which use the scientific definition are all seventy years old, or older.

    Well, maybe we don't need to choose just one definition. Could we mix them? Suppose we ignore all these contradictions and instead pretend that all of the above definitions are true. Below is the "clear" and "simple" description of electricity which results:

    Electricity is a mysterious incomprehensible entity which is invisible and visible, both at the same time. Also, electricity is both matter and energy. Both. Electricity is a type of low-frequency radio wave which is made of protons. It's a mysterious force which cannot be seen, and yet it looks like blue-white fire. It moves forward at the speed of light... yet it sits and vibrates in the AC cord without flowing forwards at all. It's totally weightless, yet it has a small weight. When electricity flows through a light bulb's filament, it gets changed entirely into light. Yet not one bit of electricity is ever used up by the light bulb, and every last bit flows out of the filament and back down the other wire. College textbooks are full of electricity, yet they have no electric charge! Electricity is a class of phenomena which can be stored in batteries! If you want to measure a quantity of electricity, what units should you use? Why Volts of electricity, of course. And also Coulombs of electricity. And Amperes, Watts, and Joules, all at the same time. Yet "electricity" is a class of phenomena; electricity a type of event. Since we can't have an amount of an event, we can't really measure the quantity of electricity at all... right?
    Heh heh.
    Does my description above sound stupid and impossible? You're right. It is. The word "electricity" has contradictory meanings, and I'm trying to show what happens when we accept more than one meaning. Electricity is not both slow and fast at the same time. It is not both visible and invisible.

    Instead, approximately ten separate things have the name "electricity." There is no single stuff called "electricity." electricity does not exist. Franklin, Edison, Thompson, and millions of science teachers should've had a long talk with Mrs. McCave before they decided to give a variety of independent science concepts just one single name.

    Mrs. McCave was invented by Dr. Seuss. She had twenty three sons. She named them all "Dave."

    Whenever we ask "What Is Electricity," that's just like asking Mrs. McCave "who is dave?" How can she describe her son? There can be no answer since the question itself is wrong. It's wrong to ask "who is Dave?" because we are assuming that there is only one Dave, when actually there are many different people. They all just happen to be named Dave. Who is Dave? Mrs. McCave cannot answer us until she first corrects our misunderstanding.

    For the same reason, we will never find a simple answer to the question "what is electricity?" because the question itself is wrong. First we must realize that "electricity" does not exist. There is no single thing named "electricity." We must learn that, while several different things do exist inside wires, people wrongly call all of them by a single name.

    So never ask "what is electricity". Instead, discard the word "electricity" and begin using the correct names for all the separate phenomena. Here are a few of them:

    The above questions all have sensible answers. But if you ask what is electricity?, then all of the answers you'll find will just confuse you, and you'll never stop asking that question.


    "I am reminded of the professor, who when asked the question 'What is electricity?' replied 'It all depends what you mean by 'is.'" - A. Gilchrist, ASLIB 1972

    SCIENTISTS' DEFINTION OF ELECTRICITY

    ELECTRICITY IS NOT ENERGY

    HOW SHOULD WE TEACH ELECTRICITY?

    WHAT IS ELECTRICITY, REALLY?

    MORE ABOUT "ELECTRICITY" 30 misconceptions that screwed *me* up.

    ELECTRICITY DOES NOT EXIST

    ELECTRICITY IS NOT ENERGY

    ELECTRICITY Q & A

    ISN'T THIS JUST NITPICKING?!

    MORE ELECTRICAL ARTICLES HERE


    
    
    
    

    LINKS


    (Note the many contradictory definitions found on other sites.
    They all give answers, but they don't agree among themselves!)


    This is part of Bill B's SCIENCE HOBBYIST website.
        
    
    
     
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    http://amasci.com/miscon/whatis.html
    Created and maintained by Bill Beaty. Mail me at: .