What Is Static Electricity?

Fine Structure Constant

[/caption]Wonder why you sometimes get zapped when touching a doorknob especially during winter? People will tell you it’s a simple case of static electricity. But what is static electricity?

In some texts, static electricity is a term supposedly used for electricity that does not deal with moving charges. Actually, there is movement of charges. In fact, when you get zapped, charges are actually moving between your fingers and the doorknob. However, the movement is only brief compared to the current in a closed circuit.

So how do stationary charges allow people to get zapped? To understand this phenomenon, try to recall the particles that make up an atom. That’s right, the protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Of the three, electrons are easily removed from an atom since the forces that bind them to an atom are weaker than those that hold the neutrons and protons together in the atoms’ nuclei.

Now, there are some materials that easily lose their electrons compared to others. We’ve included a list below ranking some materials based on their ability to lose electrons. The one at the top has a greater tendency to lose electrons while the one at the bottom has the least.

  • human hands
  • glass
  • nylon
  • fur
  • silk
  • aluminum
  • steel
  • hard rubber
  • vinyl(PVC)
  • Teflon

Such a list is known as a triboelectric series. A true triboelectric series would have positives and negatives but we won’t go into that here.

Therefore, based on the list, if you rubbed a glass rod with a silk cloth, it is the glass rod that would lose electrons to the cloth. When this happens, the glass rod becomes positively charged, while the silk cloth (having gained excess electrons) becomes negatively charged.

Then when you draw the glass rod close to small bits of paper, the positively charged glass rod repels the electrons in the paper (pushing them to one side in the paper) and attracting the positive side. This allows the bits of paper to stick to the glass rod.

In the case of people getting zapped, they usually gain electrons when they walk across a carpeted floor. The interaction is between the carpet and the soles of their shoes but the overall charge of their bodies get affected. You can imagine them as walking negatively-charged bodies.

So, when they touch a metal door knob, the excess electrons readily leap from their hands to the metal knob and they get zapped.

Actually, static electricity is a rather lengthy physics topic that covers more than just the zapping phenomena. It includes discussions on induction, conduction, Coulomb’s Law, and electric fields, to mention a few. However, when a regular person asks, “what is static electricity?”, he most likely wants you to explain about the painful sensation he experiences upon touching a door knob.

Coulomb’s Law deals with charges. Universe Today has articles talking about the charge of the proton and the charge of the electron.

NASA also has some related stuff. Check out the following articles:
Killer Electrons

Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well:
The Search for Dark Matter

How Stuff Works
The Physics Classroom

Electron Mass

The mass of the electron, or the electron’s mass, written as me, is 9.109 382 15(45) x 10-31 kg. This is the “CODATA recommended value”. It was published in March 2007, and is referred to as the 2006 CODATA recommended value.

Some background: CODATA stands for Committee on Data for Science and Technology. Per NIST (the US National Institute for Standards and Technology), “CODATA was established in 1966 as an interdisciplinary committee of the International Council of Science (ICSU), formerly the International Council of Scientific Unions. It seeks to improve the compilation, critical evaluation, storage, and retrieval of data of importance to science and technology. The CODATA Task Group on Fundamental Constants was established in 1969. Its purpose is to periodically provide the international scientific and technological communities with an internationally accepted set of values of the fundamental physical constants and closely related conversion factors for use worldwide. The first such CODATA set was dated 1973, the second 1986, the third 1998, the fourth 2002, and the fifth (the current set) 2006.

The mass of the electron is one of the fundamental physical constants, so called because they are widespread in theories of physics, and because they are widely used in the application of those theories to other branches of science and to practical uses (such as engineering). Four of the other fundamental physical constants are c (speed of light in a vacuum), e (the charge of the electron), h (Plank’s constant), and α (fine structure constant).

The method used for measuring me is to measure the Rydberg constant (R) and calculate me from it ( me = 2Rh/(cα2 ); the Rydberg constant is, in the words of the paper (by Peter J. Mohr, Barry N. Taylor, David B. Newell) in which the 2006 CODATA recommended values were published “can be accurately determined by comparing measured resonant frequencies of transitions in hydrogen (H) and deuterium (D) to the theoretical expressions for the energy level differences in which it is a multiplicative factor.For more details, refer to the paper itself.

Given that it is a fundamental physical constant, no surprise that Universe Today has some articles on it! For example Are the Laws of Nature the Same Everywhere in the Universe, and Fermilab putting the Squeeze on Higgs Boson.

Here are two Astronomy Cast episodes in which the electron mass figures prominently Electromagnetism, and Energy Levels and Spectra.

Wikipedia – Electron Rest Mass
Wikipedia – Rydberg constant

Charge of Electron

Charge of Electron


The charge of the electron is equivalent to the magnitude of the elementary charge (e) but bearing a negative sign. Since the value of the elementary charge is roughly 1.602 x 10-19 coulombs (C), then the charge of the electron is -1.602 x 10-19 C.

When expressed in atomic units, the elementary charge takes the value of unity; i.e., e = 1. Thus, the electron’s charge can be denoted by -e. Although the proton is much more massive than the electron, it only has a charge of e. Hence, neutral atoms always bear the same number of protons and electrons.

JJ Thomson is the undisputed discoverer of the electron. However, despite all those experiments he performed on it, he could only manage to obtain the electron’s charge to mass ratio. The distinction of being the first to measure the electron’s charge goes to Robert Millikan through his oil-drop experiment in 1909.

The Millikan Oil-Drop Experiment

Here’s the basic idea. If you know the density and dimensions (thus subsequently the volume) of a substance, it’s going to be easy to calculate its mass and the force that gravity exerts on it, a.k.a. weight. If you recall, weight is just m x g.

Now let’s assume these substances to be charged oil drops. If you subject these drops to gravity alone, they’ll fall freely. However, if they are allowed to fall in a uniform electric field, their trajectory will be altered depending on the direction and magnitude of the field.

If the forces due to the field are directed opposite to gravity, the downward velocity of the particles may decrease. At some point, when the upward force is equal to the downward force, the velocities may even go down to zero and the particles will stay in mid-air.

At this specific instance, if we know the magnitude of the electric field (in N/C, units defining the force per unit charge) and the weight of each particle, we can calculate the force of the electric field on a single particle and finally derive the charge.

Thus, a basic Millikan Oil-Drop Experiment setup will include an enclosure containing falling charged oil drops, a device to measure their radii, an adjustable uniform electric field, and a meter to determine the field’s magnitude.

By repeating the experiment on a large number of oil drops, Millikan and his colleague, Harvey Fletcher, obtained electron charge values within 1% of the currently accepted one.

We have some articles in Universe Today that are related to the charge of the electron. Here are two of them:

Physics World also has some more:

Tired eyes? Let your ears help you learn for a change. Here are some episodes from Astronomy Cast that just might suit your taste:

GSU Hyperphysics
University of Alaska-Fairbanks