Season of the Spark!

I felt a spark while shaking hands with someone tonight, and that [obvious pun]ed the thought that, “Oh, geeze, here we go: The Season of the Spark.”

Now I do mean a literal spark, as in zap, as in ouch, and that ouch-rageous zap signals (again, in the very literal sense of exchanging a very readable, very detectable, signal) the Season of the Spark. And that means two things.

First(ly) [no, real(ly), it’s ly], Winter is a-coming. Humidity and temperature are headed south; so are some birds, some with’s’no wings. Standing—or “piling” might be more apt—exterior water will be assuming solid form. A selected group will involve in repositioning the solidified water to enable transportation for themselves and for others. It will be a time that some will love, that some will hate, and sometimes both at the same time. Or at other times.  Main thing is: it’s a fairly extreme time compared to, say, summer. Or spring, or fall, just to randomly name a couple of others.

But secondly [you see how it ties together now], seasonal metaphysics aside, it means literally the Season of the Zap, Ouch, Spark. A time of being stung by the natural physics of the situation. And, along with its metaphysical overcoat, Spark Season is extreme. In both cases, sometimes ultra, if not über, extreme.

The equivalent of antarctic winter is a good long walk in leather shoes across a plush wool carpet. Wearing nylon on your legs. That’ll jolt you down to your toes.

Which all brings me to this fairly techno-geeky advice. For the techno-challenged, item number one is your meat. You can stop paying attention during the other two, if you like.

Three Ways to Avoid The Spark

1. Any metal object you can use as a “lightning rod.” Your keys would probably do the trick. The idea is simple: move the spark away from your body. You’ll still feel a jolt from the zap, but it won’t sting. What really hurts in the spark is the hot gas from the plasma caused by the tiny bolt of lightning you just generated. And make no mistake: the spark is exactly the same as lightning, although quite some distance away in terms of scale.

You may have noticed that the stronger the spark, the longer the spark. The higher the voltage, the more air it can blast through. When you have big enough voltages (way more than you’ll ever generate), you can spark thousands of feet from clouds to ground. Being on the end of a spark that big is usually bad news for trees, buildings and living things. No one knows if the clouds mind it.

[[The electrical algebra is simple: A spark is lightning, but humans much bigger than spark, so humans win. Lightning much bigger than humans, so lighting win.]]

So basically, that’s the deal. Find a short bit of metal you can carry around with you. When you’re about to touch something metal–especially metal that’s grounded–use your lightning rod to touch the metal first. As always, once you spark the spark, touching metal is safe.

You can improve on this, though (warning: electrical knowledge a plus)…

B. Any resistive object you can use as a “(resistive) lightning rod.” By putting resistance between you and the ground, you drop voltage across the resistor, and this limits the maximum current. The spark doesn’t have much total power (it expends big energy, but in a very short time). Since the flow is limited, the spark’s power is spread out in time; that shrinks its strength.

Which should remove the electrical shock you feel in your hand–and sometimes your arm!

But you can go even one better…

III. A  mini-Neon bulb!  If you happen to have one of these handy—and you almost certainly don’t, since it’s not the sort of thing most people do have lying about—your lightning rod now lights up rather than sparking.

When I was a kid, there was a company with an incredible science-based mail-order catalog (Edmund Scientifics—turns out it’s still around). They made such a device for exactly the purpose of absorbing static shocks. [Sadly, all they seem to offer now is the bare bulb with leads shown to the right. Click the picture to see the item in their online catalog.]

The “toy” I got from them long, long ago (in a childhood far, far away) consisted of a short tube of plastic, about four inches, like a soda straw, but tougher and with a slightly larger radius. On each end were two brass balls (simmer down, or it’ll seem worse). One of them had a hole with a mini-neon bulb sticking out of it. You held one ball with your fingers and touched the other ball to the metal object (like I said: worse).

The neon flashed nicely, and there was no shock felt!

That’s cool science for you!

As a postscript, I learned about the neon trick long before LEDs existed. I don’t know if an LED would work. Maybe with some resistance (and possibly some inductance somewhere, or maybe capacitance would help). The problem is that a spark is very short. You have to memorialize its passing somehow. (On the other hand, a single bright LED flash is fairly noticeable.)

As a post-postscript, in my search for Edmund and neon bulb static killers, I also found this link to a device touted explicitly for static killing. I can’t quite tell from the ad whether the light is from the LED (or if that’s just an added flashlight). The “orange glow” bit makes me think there’s also neon involved.

And try not to get zapped!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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