What Is Static Electricity?

iStock.com/RichVintage
iStock.com/RichVintage

Zapping someone with your finger is sure to elicit a lot of laughs when you’re 11, but static electricity is one of those things that loses its magic with age. After all, it’s the bane of good hair days and, if you have cats, they probably don’t appreciate getting shocked whenever you pet them (sorry, Fluffy). So how exactly is static electricity created, and why does it seem to occur more frequently in the winter?

To hark back to a high school science lesson: Static electricity is created when there’s an imbalance between the positive and negative charges of two objects. Most of the objects you use on a daily basis are electrically neutral. In other words, the protons (positive charge) and electrons (negative charge) that make up their atoms balance each other out, and no one gets shocked. However, the outer electrons in an atom can move around more freely than protons, and sometimes they jump from one surface to another when two materials come into contact.

This often happens when friction is involved. A classic example of this is when you shuffle across a wool carpet while wearing rubber-soled shoes. Wool—like rubber, wood, glass, plastic, and fur—is an insulator. This means that the electrons in wool are more tightly bound to the atom and are unlikely to budge. Since rubber and wool are both insulating materials, an even stronger electrical charge is likely to build up in your body, Lifehacker explains.

Essentially, one object becomes more positively charged because it doesn’t have enough protons, while the other one becomes more negatively charged because it has too many electrons. If one of those charged objects—like you—were to touch a conductor, like a metal doorknob, then the charge would be neutralized. This release is what creates a shock, or static discharge. It’s all part of nature’s attempt to restore order and balance.

That brings us to the second part of the question. The reason static electricity is more common in the winter is because the air humidity is lower. The dry air is less conductive, resulting in more powerful zaps. The Moon and Mars, for instance, are especially dry environments, so future astronauts (or colonizers) should take measures to avoid shocking their electronic equipment. Although static electricity is usually harmless, under just the right conditions it can cause flammable substances to ignite or explode, and it can also be harmful to electronics.

It isn’t all bad, though. A controlled form of triboelectric charging, as static charges are also known, is the technology behind copiers and laser printers. The key is knowing how to control it—and there are a few tricks you can try at home to reduce your exposure to unpleasant shocks.

If you want to pet your cat without zapping her, dip your fingers in water first. This will help remove the charge from static electricity so you don’t pass it to along to your unsuspecting fur baby. Humidifiers also help by releasing more moisture into the air and making it more conductive. Lifehacker also recommends swapping out your rubber-soled shoes for leather ones (or just going barefoot), and avoiding wool socks and sweaters.

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What's the Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

iStock/flySnow
iStock/flySnow

It may not be easy for some people to admit, but certain national holidays often get a little muddled—namely, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sees the confusion often enough that they spelled out the distinction on their website. The two days are held six months apart: Veterans Day is celebrated every November 11, and Memorial Day takes place on the last Monday of May as part of a three-day weekend with parades and plenty of retail sales promotions. You probably realize both are intended to acknowledge the contributions of those who have served in the United States military, but you may not recall the important distinction between the two. So what's the difference?

Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. It was first observed on November 11, 1919, the one-year anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution making it an annual observance in 1926. It became a national holiday in 1938. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day to recognize veterans of the two world wars. The intention is to celebrate all military veterans, living or dead, who have served the country, with an emphasis on thanking those in our lives who have spent time in uniform.

We also celebrate military veterans on Memorial Day, but the mood is more somber. The occasion is reserved for those who died while serving their country. The day was first observed in the wake of the Civil War, where local communities organized tributes around the gravesites of fallen soldiers. The observation was originally called Decoration Day because the graves were adorned with flowers. It was held May 30 because that date wasn't the anniversary for any battle in particular and all soldiers could be honored. (The date was recognized by northern states, with southern states choosing different days.) After World War I, the day shifted from remembering the fallen in the Civil War to those who had perished in all of America's conflicts. It gradually became known as Memorial Day and was declared a federal holiday and moved to the last Monday in May to organize a three-day weekend beginning in 1971.

The easiest way to think of the two holidays is to consider Veterans Day a time to shake the hand of a veteran who stood up for our freedoms. Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor those who are no longer around to receive your gratitude personally.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Is the Kitchen Like on the International Space Station?

iStock/Elen11
iStock/Elen11

Clayton C. Anderson:

The International Space Station (ISS) does not really have a "kitchen" as many of us here on Earth might relate to. But, there is an area called the "galley" which serves the purpose of allowing for food preparation and consumption. I believe the term "galley" comes from the military, and it was used specifically in the space shuttle program. I guess it carried over to the ISS.

The Russian segment had the ONLY galley when I flew in 2007. There was a table for three, and the galley consisted of a water system—allowing us to hydrate our food packages (as needed) with warm (tepid) or hot (extremely) water—and a food warmer. The food warmer designed by the Russians was strictly used for their cans of food (about the size of a can of cat food in America). The U.S. developed a second food warmer (shaped like a briefcase) that we could use to heat the more "flexibly packaged" foodstuffs (packets) sent from America.

Later in the ISS lifetime, a second galley area was provided in the U.S. segment. It is positioned in Node 1 (Unity) and a table is also available there for the astronauts' dining pleasures. Apparently, it was added because of the increasing crew size experienced these days (6), to have more options. During my brief visit to ISS in 2010 (12 days or so) as a Discovery crewmember, I found the mealtimes to be much more segregated than when I spent five months on board. The Russians ate in the Russian segment. The shuttle astronauts ate in the shuttle. The U.S. ISS astronauts ate in Node 1, but often at totally different times. While we did have a combined dinner in Node 1 during STS-131 (with the Expedition 23 crew), this is one of the perceived negatives of the "multiple-galley" scenario. My long duration stint on ISS was highlighted by the fact that Fyodor Yurchikhin, Oleg Kotov, and I had every single meal together. The fellowship we—or at least I—experienced during those meals is something I will never, ever forget. We laughed, we argued, we celebrated, we mourned …, all around our zero-gravity "dinner table." Awesome stuff!

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Clayton "Astro Clay" Anderson is an astronaut, motivational speaker, author, and STEAM education advocate.

His award-winning book The Ordinary Spaceman, Astronaut Edition Fisher Space Pen, and new children's books A is for Astronaut; Blasting Through the Alphabet and It's a Question of Space: An Ordinary Astronaut's Answers to Sometimes Extraordinary Questions are available at www.AstroClay.com. For speaking events www.AstronautClayAnderson.com. Follow @Astro_Clay #WeBelieveInAstronauts

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