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What is Electricity?

(c)1996 William J. Beaty

What is electricity? This question is impossible to answer because the word "Electricity" has several contradictory meanings. These different meanings are incompatible, and the contradictions confuse everyone. If you don't understand electricity, you're not alone. Even teachers, engineers, and scientists have a hard time grasping the concept.

Obviously "electricity" cannot be several different things at the same time. Unfortunately we have defined the word Electricity in a crazy way. Because of the contradictory meanings, we can never pin down the nature of electricity. In the end we are forced to declare that there's no such stuff as "electricity" at all! Here's a quick example to illustrate the problem.

Do generators make electricity? To answer this question, look at a light bulb. In household lamp cord, the charges (electrons) sit in one place and wiggle back and forth. That's AC, alternating current. At the same time, the electrical energy moves rapidly forward. The energy does not wiggle, instead it races along the wires from the distant generators and into the light bulb. OK, now ask yourself this: does "the electricity" sit inside the wires and vibrate back and forth... or does it flow forwards at high speed? It cannot do both! Which is "the electricity", the flowing electrons, or the flowing energy? There's no answer. This little question exposes a great flaw in the way we talk about "electricity". If we can repair this flaw, our explanations of "electricity" will finally start making sense.

Below are the most common meanings of the word Electricity. Which one do you think is right? Think about it carefully. If one of these meanings is correct, all the others must be wrong! After all, no "science term" must ever have several conflicting definitions. Unfortunately dictionaries and encyclopedias contain all of these contradictions. (Click the links to find out more about each one.)

  1. "Electricity" means only one thing: electrons and protons, electric charge.


2. "Electricity" means only one thing: the electromagnetic energy sent out by batteries and generators.


3. "Electricity" means only on thing: it refers to the flowing motion of electric charge.


4. "Electricity" means only one thing: it refers to the amount of imbalance between quantities of electrons and protons.


5. "Electricity" is nothing other than a class of phenomena involving electric charges.


6. Other less common definitions:

If we wish to agree on a single correct definition of "electricity," which definition should we choose? Well, maybe we don't need to choose just one. Suppose we ignore the contradictions and pretend that ALL of the above definitions are true. Below is the "clear" and "simple" description of electricity that results:

Electricity is a mysterious incomprehensible entity which is invisible and visible at the same time. It is both matter and energy. It's a type of low-frequency radio wave which is made of protons. It is a mysterious force which looks like blue-white fire and yet cannot be seen. It moves forward at the speed of light... yet it vibrates in the AC cord without flowing forwards. It's totally weightless, yet it has a small weight. When electricity flows through a light bulb's filament, it gets changed entirely into light. Yet no electricity is ever used up by the light bulb, and every bit of it it flows out of the filament and back down the other wire. College textbooks are full of electricity, yet they have no electric charge. Electricity is a class of phenomena which can be stored in batteries! If you want to measure a quantity of electricity, what units should you use? Why Volts of course. And also Coulombs, Amperes, Watts, and Joules, ALL AT THE SAME TIME. Yet "electricity" is a class of phenomena; it's a type of event. Since we can't have an AMOUNT of an event, we can't really measure the quantity of electricity at all, right?
Heh heh.

Does my description above sound stupid and impossible? You're right. It is. The word "electricity" has contradictory meanings, and I'm trying to show what happens when we accept more than one meaning. Electricity is not both slow and fast at the same time. It is not both visible and invisible.

Instead, approximately ten separate things have the name "electricity." There is no single stuff called "electricity." ELECTRICITY DOES NOT EXIST. Franklin, Edison, Thompson, and millions of science teachers should've had a long talk with Mrs. McCave before they decided to give a variety of independant science concepts just one single name.

Mrs. McCave was invented by Dr. Seuss. She had twenty three sons. She named them all "Dave."

Whenever we ask "WHAT IS ELECTRICITY," that's just like asking Mrs. McCave "WHO IS DAVE?" How can she describe her son? There can be no answer since the question itself is wrong. It's wrong to ask "who is Dave?" because we are assuming that there is only one Dave, when actually there are many separate Daves. Who is Dave? Mrs. McCave cannot answer us until she first corrects our misunderstanding.

For the same reason, we will never find a simple answer to "what is electricity?" because the question itself is wrong. First we must realize that "electricity" does not exist. We must learn that many different things exist in wires, but that people wrongly call all of them by a single name.

So never ask "WHAT IS ELECTRICITY". Instead, discard the word "electricity" and use the correct names for all the separate phenomena. Here are a few of them:

  • What is electric charge?
  • What is electrical energy?
  • What are electrons?
  • What is electric current?
  • What is an imbalance of charge?
  • What is an electric field?
  • What is voltage?
  • What is electric power?
  • What is a spark?
  • What is electromagnetism?
  • What is electrical science?
  • What is electrodynamics?
  • What is electrostatics?
  • What are electrical phenomena?
These questions all have sensible answers. But if you ask WHAT IS ELECTRICITY?, then all answers you find will just confuse you, and you'll never stop asking that question.


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