Shocking Discoveries Brought to Light

I don’t know which woke me first, the bright light or the loud boom. What I do know is that the combination scared me out of sleep and out of bed. The hair on my nine-year-old arms was standing straight up as I ran into the living room where my father was holding his newspaper but no longer reading.

“Did you see that?” he inquired.

“What was it?” I asked.

“Lightning, I think.”

We both went to the screen door and looked out. The roof on the house across the street was smoking. That’s where the main bolt hit, but a small branch of the strike came through our screen door. Nobody was hurt except for the Zenith television set which required a new fuse. We were lucky. A couple of years ago, a lightning strike on a tree in our back yard destroyed several electronic gizmos in our house.

Lightning is scary stuff. My college roommate and I once got stuck while hiking in Oak Creek Canyon outside of Sedona, Arizona during a thunderstorm. We found the safest spot we could and huddled in our ponchos for almost an hour while lightning struck several trees near us. It was as frightening as some situations I faced in Vietnam. Noisier, that’s for sure. I spent many nights in or near the gun pits of our 155 howitzers while they sent hundreds of rounds into the darkness. I also endured a few enemy 122 rockets hitting our compound. Lightning is louder. And scarier.

It’s even worse in Colorado, especially in the mountains where I live. There’s a lot of iron mixed in with the Pikes Peak granite. Ponderosa pine seem to find those veins of iron to poke their roots into, thus inviting electricity to the party. I can look out my back window at the patch of forest next to us and count nine trees that have been hit by lightning. I was at home for three of them. Scared doesn’t begin to describe how I feel when 100,000 volts of moving electrons superheats the air when I’m not expecting it. It’s a race between the cat and me as to who gets to the bedroom first. He usually wins. He dives under the bed where I won’t fit, so I stay on top. Under the covers, of course, but on top. Kim usually joins me. And when our sons were little they did as well.

Humans have been afraid and awed by lightning as far back as we can ascertain. Our ancestors made up stories to explain the immense power of a lightning bolt. From Jupiter and his spears forged by Vulcan to the Native American Thunderbirds, humans have told stories to explain this force of nature. Thanks to Ben Franklin and other scientists, we now know that lightning is just moving electrons. Walk across a million pieces of carpet at once and touch a doorknob and there’s lightning. Which is pretty awe-inspiring. The action of rubbing a piece of plastic with a piece of cloth and getting it to repel or attract bits of paper is the same science as the blinding flashes of light that can briefly turn night into day. That’s awesome for real.

Electrons are funny little critters that few people pay much attention to. Most folks can’t even explain what happens when they turn on a light switch. Exhibit A is the girl who got killed while texting in the bathtub. And yet electrons power their phones, their house, and even their computers. Moving electrons, which is what electricity is, creates the modern world. We call this the Information Age, but I think it should be called the Electron Age. Most of our information is stored digitally as ones and zeros which are physically manifested by an electric charge or no electric charge. Electrons or no electrons.

Even more interesting, or more importantly, without electrons we could not stand on the planet. In fact without electrons, there would be no planet, just a small super dense piece of matter that weighed as much as the earth but only took up as much space as this period. As physicists learn more about electrons, the more essential and weird they become. Artificial light, which has transformed the world’s work schedule, is created when electrons in a higher energy state drop to a lower state and give up their extra energy in the form of photons.

Photons, or light, is not only essential to our existence, but is an important element of every religion and mythology. In the subatomic world of electrons and photons, the normal rules of our daily life do not apply. Electrons and photons can be both a particle and a wave. They are some (thing) and no (thing) at the same time. Electrons communicate with each other at faster than the speed of light (known as spooky entanglement.) They can be in more than one place at a time and just measuring them causes them to choose their state of existence. If some of these abilities manifested themselves in our daily macro world we would call them miracles. To an electron it’s just another day.

My earliest memory is that of finding a bobby pin on the floor and sticking it in a light socket while ignoring my mother’s warning not to. It knocked me on my diapered bottom. I have since felt that incredible cyclical surge of electrons accidently several times. It never fails to impress or scare me. I have learned a lot about electrons since that first experience. There are a lot of good You Tube videos that explain electrons if you are like most people and need some cranial stimulation on the subject. I suggest that you educate yourself. You will find that electrons are literally fundamental. Without them, we wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.