Science for the Scared 4. Riding the Wave: Electromagnetism

2 Jan


I actually don’t know why this diagram has naked people, butterflies and needle points in it, but hey, it’s science! Thank you, Wikimedia Commons.

No discussion of atoms would be complete without getting back to the idea of WHY our tiny friends, the negatively-charged electrons, would choose to jump from the safe inner shells of their universe, close to the nucleus (made of positively charged protons and plain old chargeless neutrons) to shells that are further out. Electrons are deeply engaged in an electromagnetic relationship with the nucleus—why change a beautiful thing? 


Oh wait, did I just say “electromagnetic”? As if I had already explained it? Why, how RUDE of me. Do sit down and have some sweet tea and I’ll tell you just a bit about the electromagnetic field. As I mentioned before, it’s one of the four major forces in the universe. That is, along with the strong force (binding protons to neutrons), the weak force (lets radioactive material decay), and gravity. No, don’t worry about that piece of pecan pie you just dropped. That’s just the force of gravity. It just wants to pull on every piece of matter and drag it to the center of the earth. Of course, it’s not going to go through the bottom of the porch. That smooshed piece of pie is exerting force on the porch floor, but the porch floor is exerting force right back, pushing it up. Anyway, I’ll just clean that up and get you some more. There, a nice new piece of pie, filled with pecans and the constant drama of atoms doing their magical little electromagnetic dance.


Oh yes, electromagnetism. Ever had an X-ray? Listened to a song on the radio? Eaten a Lean Cuisine fresh from the microwave oven? Seen the color red? These things are all available because of the field of electromagnetism that underlies out universe. Imagine that all throughout the universe, electricity is moving in millions of endless straight vertical lines. And magnetism is moving endlessly in straight horizontal lines. Electricity and magnetism are constantly pushing against each other in a neverending battle for dominance. Neither party ever wins. But their endless pushing (are they siblings, perchance?) means that the universe is filled with waves of energy from the conflict. Some of these waves are very fast and very close together, like gamma waves and X-rays. Others are much slower. Among the slowest are radio waves. A little higher on the electromagnetic spectrum are colors. From ultraviolet (the highest) to infrared (the lowest), every color you see in your box of 64 Crayolas is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Okay, maybe you won’t see ultraviolet or infrared in your box of crayolas because they are colors we don’t normally see. You probably have to get your badge in Science to see them.  But that doesn’t mean they don’t affect you. Remember that time you went to the beach and you THOUGHT you slathered yourself in sunscreen but you forgot to put any on your feet and the next day they felt like burning fire because of the sunburn you got? That is the result, in part, of harmful ultraviolet (UV) waves on your delicate skin. Most UV rays don’t penetrate Earth’s protective atmosphere, but some do. So remember, wear your sunscreen. And do let me get you more sweet tea. It’s filled with electromagnetic energy, too. And in the meantime, I’ll just give you one word I’ll be using to answer the question I posed in the first paragraph for my next post. That word is “photons.”

And in the meantime, here’s an easy, fun Web site about the electromagnetic spectrum:


Writing prompts: 1. Did you ever get a major sunburn? When? 2. What are some of your favorite memories of listening to the radio?

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