In the last week, there's been a lot of static electricity in the air.
First, a Northwestern University scientist overturned the conventional wisdom about how the stuff works.
Then, a small tsunami off the Cornish coast of England caused the sea to recede 150 feet or more -- and people's hair to stand on end with static electricity.
Wha ... ? Why did that happen?
First, let's look at how it works.
The new theory of static electricity
For a long time, it was thought that static electricity occurred when electrons came off the surface of one object and moved to another, creating an imbalance in charge.
But Bartosz Grzybowski, a physical chemist at Northwestern University, and his colleagues published a study in Science showing that the two objects in contact exchange more than ions. They actually exchange small bits of matter.
The Northwestern researchers expected to see that the positive and negative ions in two objects that had static electricity were uniformly distributed. But with a Kelvin force probe microscope, which measures the level of charge on various parts of the surface of an object, they showed that such charges aren't uniform; they're clumped into positive and negative regions about ten nanometers across.
With spectroscopy techniques, the researchers showed that when rubbed together, the materials' surfaces exchanged these nano-sized pieces of charged material.
This means if you rub a balloon on your head and your hair stands up, tiny pieces of balloon -- these positive and negative clumps -- actually stick to your hair.
However, they still do not know exactly how that forms static electricity.
So what do tsunamis have to do with static electricity?
The first theory about how Monday's Cornish tsunami caused static electricity rests on the idea that the tsunami was triggered by a small earthquake or undersea landslide off the Irish coast.
This hypothesis holds that rock vibrations created a strong electrical charge that traveled along the seafloor, up the beach, onto dry land and out the hairs on people's heads.
The area around Cornwall has ancient rocks containing quartz crystals, and if squeezed, they could generate a high voltage, Chris Shepherd of the Institute of Physics told England's Daily Mail.
"It's called the Piezoelectric Effect.... It's the same effect used in gas lighters on your cooker," he said.
The Daily Mail also reports that there were similar surges in electrical charge in the air three days before the March earthquake that caused the massive tsunami in Japan and before the 2007 quake in Haiti.
However a competing theory is that a phenomenon called the "Lithosphere-Atmosphere-Ionosphere Coupling mechanism" forces the release of radioactive radon gas from deep within the Earth in the days before an earthquake, and the radioactivity from this gas electrifies the air.
The third hypothesis rejects the idea that there was a quake at all.
Oceanographer Simon Boxall, citing the fact that that the British Geological Survey did not detect an seismic activity, believes it was a "seiche," a freak wave caused by very low or very high pressure crossing water.
At the right speed, that weather system can cause the sea underneath to resonate the way a wine glass resonates when you circle the rim with your finger just right -- except in this case, it creates a big wave. He believes the low pressure system created the wave, and the static.
The multi-millennial mystery
Considering that static electricity has been puzzling people since at least ancient Greek times and that we use its properties in technologies such as air filters and photocopiers, you would think that scientists would have figured out how it all works by now. But they haven't.
Till they do, watch this video of the mild Cornish tsunami and come up with your own theory about how it was related to the static electricity in the air.
Photo: Flickr, AdrienneMay
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