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.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why is Winnie the Pooh Called a Pooh?

iStock.com/CatLane
iStock.com/CatLane

Since A.A. Milne published the first official Winnie the Pooh story in 1926, the character has become beloved by children across many generations. Milne’s writing clearly struck a chord, and the character’s many subsequent TV and film adaptations have endeared him to an even wider audience.

But why is Winnie called a Pooh rather than a bear? Given that most children (and grown-ups, for that matter) have a different idea of what a Pooh is, how has the name stuck?

The answer lies back in the 1920s.

In fact, when first introduced by Milne, Winnie wasn’t even Winnie. Initially, he went by the name of Edward Bear, before changing to Winnie in time for that aforementioned official 1926 debut. The "Winnie" part of the name came from a visit to the London Zoo, where Milne saw a black bear who had been named after the city of Winnipeg, Canada.

As for Pooh? Well, originally Pooh was a swan, a different character entirely.

In the book When We Were Very Young (the same book that introduced Edward Bear), Milne wrote a poem, telling how Christopher Robin would feed the swan in the mornings.

He told how Christopher Robin had given the swan the name "Pooh," explaining that “this is a very fine name for a swan, because if you call him and he doesn’t come (which is a thing swans are good at), then you can pretend that you were just saying ‘Pooh!’ to show him how little you wanted him."

Milne indeed knew what he was doing by using such a word. The names "Winnie" and "Pooh" were soon brought together, and Winnie the Pooh was born. Milne still took a little time out to explain why Winnie was a Pooh, though.

As he would write in the first chapter of the first Winnie the Pooh book, “But his arms were so stiff ... they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think—but I am not sure—that that is why he is always called Pooh."

It's not the most convincing explanation, but it's a formal explanation nonetheless.

Not that the reasoning ultimately mattered too much. The name stuck, having never seen a focus group in its life. A much loved childhood character, with a vaguely funny name, would go on to superstardom. And even be honored with his own holiday, Winnie the Pooh Day, which occurs annually on January 18th.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why is Winnie the Pooh Called a Pooh?

iStock.com/CatLane
iStock.com/CatLane

Since A.A. Milne published the first official Winnie the Pooh story in 1926, the character has become beloved by children across many generations. Milne’s writing clearly struck a chord, and the character’s many subsequent TV and film adaptations have endeared him to an even wider audience.

But why is Winnie called a Pooh rather than a bear? Given that most children (and grown-ups, for that matter) have a different idea of what a Pooh is, how has the name stuck?

The answer lies back in the 1920s.

In fact, when first introduced by Milne, Winnie wasn’t even Winnie. Initially, he went by the name of Edward Bear, before changing to Winnie in time for that aforementioned official 1926 debut. The "Winnie" part of the name came from a visit to the London Zoo, where Milne saw a black bear who had been named after the city of Winnipeg, Canada.

As for Pooh? Well, originally Pooh was a swan, a different character entirely.

In the book When We Were Very Young (the same book that introduced Edward Bear), Milne wrote a poem, telling how Christopher Robin would feed the swan in the mornings.

He told how Christopher Robin had given the swan the name "Pooh," explaining that “this is a very fine name for a swan, because if you call him and he doesn’t come (which is a thing swans are good at), then you can pretend that you were just saying ‘Pooh!’ to show him how little you wanted him."

Milne indeed knew what he was doing by using such a word. The names "Winnie" and "Pooh" were soon brought together, and Winnie the Pooh was born. Milne still took a little time out to explain why Winnie was a Pooh, though.

As he would write in the first chapter of the first Winnie the Pooh book, “But his arms were so stiff ... they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think—but I am not sure—that that is why he is always called Pooh."

It's not the most convincing explanation, but it's a formal explanation nonetheless.

Not that the reasoning ultimately mattered too much. The name stuck, having never seen a focus group in its life. A much loved childhood character, with a vaguely funny name, would go on to superstardom. And even be honored with his own holiday, Winnie the Pooh Day, which occurs annually on January 18th.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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