What Is Static Electricity?


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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Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

What Is the Shelf Life of Donated Eyes?


Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

I can only answer for cornea and eye donation.

The FDA does all oversight (no pun intended) of organ disposition.

The main organs—heart, liver, pancreas, lungs, etc.—are transplanted within hours. They are just not viable if they are not being perfused constantly.

The other tissues—like bone, skin, tendons, etc.—do not need to be transplanted immediately. But I am not sure on the regulations of when they need to be transplanted.

With the eyes, there are four tissues that can be recovered.

We recover whole eyes for research and education purposes. These usually go much faster, but we can hold them up to a year.

Conjunctiva can also be recovered; conjunctiva is a clear covering over most of the eye (it is what gets irritated when you have pink eye). I have been working as a recovery tech for five years, and our office has not had a request for "conj" in all that time. I believe it is mostly used for research, but I could be wrong.

Sclera is the white area of your eye. It is fairly thick and flexible. If you have ever touched a reptile egg, that is what it reminds me of. We recover sclera for transplant. They use it for several things, but mainly to patch punctures. Similar to if you pop the inner tube of your bike and repair it. Sclera can also be used to repair ear drums. We can hold on to this for up to a year.

The main thing we recover is corneas. In the U.S., we must transplant these within seven days of recovery. (Recovery is usually within hours of death, but we can push it up to 20 hours after if needed.) Sometimes we have more corneas than we need, and then they are shipped overseas and transplanted up to 14 days after recovery. There is no real different outcome with the later transplant time, but the FDA in the U.S. made the rules. (You can sign up to be an organ, tissue, and eye donor here.)

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