Meter Guide to Electricity and Magnets

When we think of magnets and electricity it might seem like they cause things to happen by magic. The reason why magnetism and electricity seem to be so mysterious is that their forces are invisible to us. Have you ever seen the wind? Think about it. We see the effect the wind has on objects around us everyday, but we know it's not magic. We know it is windy because we see the trees moving or see leaves in the air. We have also learned to measure the wind and use it for pleasure and industry. Similarly, we have learned some things about the effects that magnets and electricity have on objects around us. Even though we can't see it, we know it is there. Let's take some time to try to figure out what makes the magic displayed by both electricity and magnets.

To know how magnets and electricity work we need to realize that everything around us is made up of atoms full of electrons, protons and neutrons. It is in the make up of atoms that the world of electricity and magnetism exist. Each atom has a center called a nucleus filled with particles called protons and neutrons. The atom also has particles called electrons that orbit around the nucleus. Electrons and protons have what we refer to as a charge. Protons in the nucleus have a positive charge. The electrons orbiting the nucleus have a negative charge. Neutrons, on the other hand, have a neutral or no charge. Neutrons add to the mass of the atom and are thought to help hold the nucleus together.

In both electricity and magnetism it is the positive and negative charges at work that cause things to happen. In magnets there are two parts, positive and negative. For example, one end of a magnet will be positively charged and the other end negative. When you place two magnets together, the similar charged ends will repel or push away from each other. The oppositely charged ends will attract and cling to each other.

The Earth itself is also like a large magnet with magnetic fields coming from its north and south poles, radiating into space. We can use magnetism to see the direction of the Earth's magnetic fields with a compass that always wants to point to the magnetic north pole. This may seem like magic but what is actually happening is that the positively charged particles are attracted to negatively charged particles. In electricity, something similar is also happening. The positive protons are attracted to the negative electrons.

Electricity and magnets are similar in that they both work because of the effect of positive and negative forces acting on each other. Because the positive proton is trapped in the nucleus of the atom, it is the moving negative electrons that are mostly responsible for the working of electricity.

We can see the effects of moving electrons in electricity even in our own bodies when we shuffle our feet on a rug then touch another person or object causing a small arc or spark of static electricity. If you do the same thing in the dark and watch very closely you can even see the spark between your finger and the other object. The spark is caused by the build up of electrons jumping to the other object. The atom always wants to equalize the number of protons and electrons so some jump to adjust the balance between the two objects.

The next time you see lightning, remember it is really a big spark of electricity caused by moving electrons jumping from one place to another and causing a beautiful light display.

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