by Kim Pederson…….
So, static electricity. Not something you think about every day. Not something you likely consider even on those days when your hair suddenly decides to jump up and go off in search of the invisible Van de Graaff generator someone or something just turned on in the room. Not even when you notice the cat hairs clinging to your t-shirt appear to be auditioning for some yet-to-be-announced Fantasia sequel. I’m only thinking about it now because of a Salon article that popped up on Flipboard: “Tiny Sparks Are All Around Us” by Sebastian Deffner.
Deffner offers an intriguing story of how static electricity was discovered and how it works. Right up front, he mentions Thales of Miletus, a Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. (Some day I’ll figure out how these guys managed to simulchapeau [wear multiple hats] so successfully. Right now I can only manage one: litter-box maintenance professional or LBMP.) Thales “discovered” static electricity when he noticed that if you rubbed a piece of amber hard enough, small particles of dust would start sticking to it.
What’s interesting about Thales in addition to this is he seems to be the original Mr. Science. Specifically, he said “see ya” to the then-traditional approach of explaining phenomena using mythology and started instead to form theories and hypotheses about why things exist and happen. Voila, science! Of a sort. His non-mythological explanation for earthquakes was that our planet floated on water and was sometimes rocked by waves.
Among other things, Thales thought the “originating principle” of nature was water. He also thought (it was ancient times after all) that magnets have souls because one lodestone could cause another one to move. More broadly, he believed that all matter contained souls and so was alive, which made him a practitioner of hylozoism.
On top of all this philosophizing, mathematizing, and astronomerizing, Thales apparently was a shrewd business person. One story, which may be a pre-urban myth, has him, based on his prediction of a good harvest year ahead, buying up all the olive presses in Miletus (or reserving them at a discount and renting them out at a premium) and getting rich as a result. As the story goes, he did this because someone asked him, “Hey, smarty-pants philosopher, if you’re so intelligent, how come you’re not rich yet?” If the buying-up story is true, it would have marked the first known creation and use of futures. If the renting story is true, it would have marked the first known creation and use of options. Either way, brilliant!
It’s not clear that Thales’ rise to fame and fortune began with the amber-rubbing eureka moment. I like to think it did. I also like to think that perhaps I might follow in his footsteps and enjoy the same result. I’m looking around at this moment for something to rub together. Darn. Not a penny or stick in sight. I do have two cats close by…sleeping…peaceful…innocent…trusting…available…without the slightest clue they are about to make scientific history. I’ll fill them in later. They will be thrilled. I just know it.
* Image of Thales scanned from Illustrerad Verldshistoria by Ernst Wallis et al, published 1875-9. Public Domain.
Visit Kim Pederson’s blog RatBlurt: Mostly Random Short-Attention-Span Musings.