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Why do some people say "We don't
really know what electricity is!"?
©WJ Beaty 2020

At the university level, earlier than about 80 years ago, "What is Electricity?" was a popular question. The usual old answer accompanying this question was, "we don't really know!"

If you're like me, and have a long habit of reading dusty old historical paper-lumps, you'll have encountered this question/answer on several occasions.

But today that same question is stated thus:


Over roughly eight decades, the concept called "Quantity of Electricity" has been obsoleted, and replaced by the concept called "Electric Charge" or simply "Charge".

So, don't ask a physicist about the true nature of 'electricity.' Instead, ask them if today we finally know just exactly what Charge really is! <grin!>

Note that in many decades past, scientists and engineers didn't use the terms "charge" or "electric charge." Instead, they called it by the name Quantity of Electricity, or just "electricity." This old language still hangs on in a few spots. Example: in the metric system (the SI units,) the coulomb is defined as the Quantity of Electricity. In chem classes, while describing Faraday's Law of Electrolysis, we still say that we pass a certain "net amount of electricity" through an electrochemical cell. And even in the famous CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, up until the mid-1980s, their extensive glossary had extensive use of the word "Electricity" as a physics quantity. (They didn't say "charge." They said "Electricity.") Maxwell and Einstein would recognize this. It was their language, before it was eventually replaced by the term "electric charge."

So, what is electricity, really?


Now just say what charge really is. (This link is my own attempt.)


On another note...

The word "electricity" has several definitions, and the multiple definitions directly contradict each other. "Electricity," besides being a quantity in physics-history, also refers to a class of phenomena. In other words, the term "electricity" is much like the words "optics," or "weather," or "government."

Would you agree with this statement: "When you get right down to it, we don't really know what Optics truly is"?

But that's silly. We darned well know what Optics really is, in exquisite detail. It's a human-determined word, after all. We also know just what Weather really is, and also Government.

And in the same vein, we're all aware that computers and radios are "electronics," but flashlights and doorbells are "electricity!"

Heh, and now you know what Electricity really is. It's just circuitry that contains no tubes or transistors! (Lenses and prisms are Optics, while switches and batteries are Electricity. Now you know exactly what electricity really is.) In other words, I might knock over a bucket at the surplus junk-store, and Optics pours out, while that big plastic tub over there is full of Electricity ...and Electronics is piled up in that other room. WHAT'S THAT SMELL? It looks like you've stepped in some Biology, and now you've tracked it all over the carpet!

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

So, according to at least one Ambrose, electricity is "the power." Doesn't this mean that the true Quantity of Electricity is to be measured... IN WATTS?! aHeh.

Abbott and Costello, "WATT IS A VOLT?"

Still more...

If we inspect nearly every book below the undergraduate college level, they'll teach us what Electricity actually is. It's not the "Charge" of Maxwell/Faraday/Einstein/etc. It's not the phenomena-class like Optics or Weather. Instead, they claim that electricity is the current! Humm, so now the nitrogen/oxygen has become "the wind," and we have no word for "air?" And, if the river-water ever should halt its flow, it means the water has vanished, ...since the word "water" now actually means current? Yep. Modern school books directly contradict the centuries-old historical use of the term "electricity." They teach kids that electricity is the flowing motion of electrons, rather the old physics version, where electricity is the electrons themselves.

So, if "electricity" is now the flowing-motion, what exactly is flowing inside the wires? Heh, the books also say that "electricity" is flowing. OF COURSE!!! Why didn't I think of that! When some electricity starts flowing, its flowing motion is also called "electricity!" So very twisted.

Today when discussing circuit-analogies, we're all expected to teach our students that, whenever we turn on a kitchen faucet, no water results, but only a bunch of "flow" comes out? Also, just what stuff is flowing inside the plumbing pipes? Answer: "current" is flowing! Not water. Turn on the faucet, and you can fill your bucket with "current." Next, we shall eliminate the word "water," never mention it anywhere, and also teach that the H2O molecule is a tiny particle made of "current.")

This is not any joke.

In physics, the electron may correctly be called a "charge-carrier" ...but in each textbook in contemporary electrical engineering, instead we call the electron by the name "current'carrier." It's true. Go and look. The same texts don't discuss charge-conservation. Instead they call it Conservation of Current. (As I said, they don't know the difference between air versus wind. And oxygen molecules? Those are the tiny particles made out of wind, eh, eh?)

And so, today the electron has become a tiny particle made of "current."

Might you begin to suspect that this problem with contradictions with "electricity-language" could be a source of wide confusion, if not a galloping meme-infection that takes over all minds and textbooks? For decades in the past, the electrons were the electricity itself. A flow of electricity was called "electric current." But instead today, the electrons' flowing motion has become "the electricity." The quantity of electricity was originally supposed to be measured in coulombs, not amperes. (So says the international metric system, the SI units and the NIST.)

Yet all the grade-school books contradict this, and instead teach us that the "amount of electricity" must be measured in coulombs-per-second flows. (Also called "Amperes.") Electricity today has become nothing but a rate, and the quantity of electricity is now the Amp. (See? They don't know the difference between air and wind. During the wind, what exactly is moving along? Wind is moving! After all, "wind blows," right? Nobody ever claims that "air is blowing!" Whenever we breathe, we're inhaling tiny molecules of "wind." Right?)

Sheesh! Sorry. It's not 1986 anymore, yet I still get worked up about this stuff. The mistakes all seem intentionally crafted to confuse every student in the grade-school system. And worse, the same mistakes are spreading to the expert level, becoming endemic in engineering, and causing physicists to stop using the word "electricity." Maybe we should all just do like RP Feynman. Call it Wakalixies and be done!

But What is Electricity really?

Aaag. Slooooowly I turned. Step by step, inch by inch (raises hands shaped to form claws.) You think I'm just foolin', until I start with the "WHAT'S THE ELECTRICITY AMBROSE?! WHAT'S THE ELECTRICITY AMBROSE?!!!"


(Natural philoso-fiction?)
Created and maintained by Bill Beaty.
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