Energy Stories

Physics without the Numbers

I've met a lot of people who turn away when the conversation turns just the slight bit technological. I understand that some people are better at understanding technology than others. We each have our strengths - some people's talent lie in other areas, such as literature or culinary arts (two areas in which I'm not very strong).

But this aversion to technology, I find, seems particularly acute.

One thing I've discovered is that everyone has their own learning style. Some learn by doing, others by watching. Some like to take lots of notes, others learn best just by watching and listening. Some people like to learn about theory first, while others (such as I) like to learn more from practical examples, first, then understand the theory later on.

I happen to think that many people got "turned off" to technical topics because of how subjects like math and science have been taught in schools. Math, especially, seems to be taught with one learning style in mind. If that's not how you learn, then you may have ended up with poor grades and a bad feeling about the whole subject.

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So let's try this. Physics without the numbers is my way to explain how energy works with as little math as possible. I happen to have developed a "feel" for how energy works, and I think others can and do also, without all those numbers. I've got plenty of ideas about how to describe a feel for energy, which I plan to introduce on this web site soon. But first, let's try one basic one - how they measure (and you pay for) electricity.

The first thing is to get past the language. Electricity is nothing more than electrons on the move.

Now, electrons are way too small to see, so it takes huge amounts of them to make any difference (such as run the computer on which perhaps you're reading this right now). Because they're so small, people have tried to describe electricity in terms of things with which we're more familiar. Such as a parade of ping pong balls being pushed along inside a pipe, where they just fit through, one at a time, like this:


So, when someone starts talking about "amps" or "volts" or "kilowatthours" (oy!) what do you do? One thing is to look at this chart to interpret:

Electricity Language
Electrician Language Physics Language What it Means, in theory What it means to you at home
Amps (Amperes) Current
How many electrons are passing through at each moment (how many ping pong balls, in the picture above).
A fraction of an Ampere is a trickle. Many "amps" is a "torrent."
Volts Electromotive Force How hard the electrons are being pushed (the force of the arrow pushing, in the picture, above), even if they're not actually moving yet. Flashlight batteries, a few volts, are "low voltage" - safe to touch. Wall sockets present "high voltage" - too dangerous to touch.
Watts Power A combination of how many electrons are moving AND how hard they are being pushed. An electric clock takes a teensy amount of power to run. An electric stove burner or an air conditioner take a major amount of power. Other appliances fall somewhere in between.
WattHours (or Kilowatthours) Energy A combination of how many electrons are moving AND how hard they are being pushed AND how long this goes on before it stops. The longer you leave something turned on, and the more power it uses, the faster you'll use energy, the bigger the electric bill will be, and the the greater the impact on the planet.

I hope this helps. If you have a different way of explaining these terms, please let me know and I'll consider including your language on this web site. Also, there is a lot more about understanding electricity and how it's used, with the numbers, at the Mr. Electricity web site.

- Glenn Koenig