The word electricity is derived from Latin and Greek electrum and electron meaning amber. This by reference to amber’s magnetic qualities. Amber is today a semi-precious gemstone that is actually fossilized tree resin. It was William Gilbert, an English scientist born in 1544 who coined the term ‘electricity’. Electricity is the presence and flow of an electric charge in one direction. An electric charge can either be static or otherwise flow as an electric current.
All matter on Earth is made up of atoms. Every substance can be broken down ultimately to atoms but no further. Atoms are extremely small and not visible to humans, for example there are 100 trillion atoms in a human cell. Human understanding is that atoms are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons.
Protons and neutrons make up the nucleus (centre) of the atom. Electrons are positioned around the nucleus and are bound to the nucleus by electromagnetic forces. The number of electrons in an atom can change as electrons can move between atoms. This flow of electrons is the electric current.
Humans did not invent what we call electricity. Electrons have moved from atom to atom in nature for an eternity before archaic humans started walking on two legs some hundreds of thousands of years ago. What we have done as modern humans is understand that the flow of electrons creates an energy that makes things move. We then recklessly exploited this characteristic to become the first species to singlehandedly bring about a mass extinction of life on Earth.
What we call electricity is everywhere in nature, in all habitats and life forms and of course also in the human body. It is fundamentally a precious and vital biological process. Human cells are specialized to conduct electrical currents. This energy is required for the nervous system to send signals throughout the body, including the brain, making it possible for us to move, think and feel. This internal electric current is critical for all our bodily functions and underpins life. It is the language that cells and organs use to communicate in order to keep it all functioning well.
Human cells generate and control electrical currents using elements, like chloride, sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate and magnesium. When these minerals dissolve in fluids (mainly water), they form electrolytes that are positive or negative charged ions. Almost all of our cells can use these charged ions to generate electricity. Incidentally 60% of our body is water and this water is found our cells, in the space between our cells and in our blood.
Our entire body is made of different types of cells, many tens of trillions f them. A cell is the smallest complete organism containing fundamental molecules for life. Molecules are groupings of atoms.
Cells are intelligent. The contents of the cell are enclosed in a protective membrane that selectively denies or allows entry to the interior of the cell. The cell membrane also acts as a way for the cell to generate electrical currents. Resting cells are negatively charged on the inside, while the outside environment is more positively charged. Cells can achieve this charge separation by allowing charged ions to flow in and out through the membrane. The flow of charges across the cell membrane is what generates electrical currents.
Cells control the flow of specific electrically charged elements across the membrane using proteins that sit on the cell surface. These proteins create an opening for certain ions to pass through and for this reason are called ion channels. When a cell is stimulated, it allows positive charges to enter the cell through open ion channels. The inside of the cell then becomes more positively charged, which triggers further electrical currents that can turn into electrical pulses, called action potentials. Our bodies use certain patterns of action potentials to initiate the correct movements, thoughts and behaviours.
Electricity in nature and in us, as part of nature, does not present any danger or harm. It has evolved with all life forms on Earth over hundreds of millions of years. On the other hand, man-made electric currents and radio and electromagnetic frequency radiation is another story altogether.
This article was published in the Senior Times of Malta on the 19 June 2019