I've recently been trying to come up with a novice level discussion explaining "What is electricity?" and I kept messing up because of a problem I've had since I studied EE. I know a lot about what electricity does, but I don't have a clue as to what it is. And IMHO neither does any honest person.
About midway through my EE program I realized that nobody knows what electricity is, that all we were being taught were some extended metaphors that weren't particualarly accurate and a lot of very accurate math that fits the observations that just don't make sense. This was a very uneasy time for me in that I wasn't sure wether I was just not getting it or if the professors were running some kind of scam. Later, as I got more Physics I realized that my discomfort was actually a reasonable response to this topic. The concept embedded in the book title: "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" helped most of all, and now I am comfortable with the realization that my problem is with what constitutes authentic knowledge, that is: what it means to 'understand' something. I understood the stuff as well as anybody, I just didn't beleive that I understood it. And this lack of belief nearly caused me to quit the program.
My problem now is how to do a quick introduction to electricity without falling all over myself with my philosophical ruminations about the nature of knowledge. Normal folks want an idea why you need a 300 ohm resistor in series with an LED, not a tortured soul epistemological ramble. But, I also think lots of folks get an introductory view of electricity, think they don't undestand it because the are too dense and then quit trying. But I want to get across the point that 'not getting it' is actually getting it. I keep myself awake at night thinking about this kind of stuff. Anyway, I just ran across a 50 year old explanation of 'what is electricity' in the book Basic Electronic by the US Navy and was surprised to see that they discussed the very point that I was stumbling over, and did an excellent IMHO job of covering it. Here is what they say where I've put what are the key concepts to me in bold:
What is electricity?
The word "electric' is actually a Greek-derived word meaning AMBER. Amber is a translucent (semitransparent) yellowish mineral, which, in the natural form, is composed of fossilized resin. The ancient Greeks used the words "electric force" in referring to the mysterious forces of attraction and repulsion exhibited by amber when it was rubbed with a cloth. They did not understand the fundamental nature of this force. They could not answer the question, "What is electricity?". This question is still unanswered. Though electricity might be as "that force which moves electrons," this would be the same as defining an engine as " that force which moves an automobile." The effect has been described, not the force.
Presently little more is known than the ancient Greeks knew about the fundamental nature of electricity, but tremendous strides have been made in harnessing and using it. Elaborate theories concerning the nature and behavior of electricity have been advanced, and have gained wide acceptance because of their apparent truth and demonstrated workability.
From time to time various scientists have found that electricity seems to behave in a constant and predictable manner in given situations, or when subjected to given conditions. These scientists, such as Faraday, Ohm, Lenz, and Kirchhoff, to name only a few, observed and described the predictable characteristics of electricity and electric current in the form of certain rules. These rules are often referred to as " laws." Thus, though electricity itself has never been clearly defined, its predictable nature and easily used form of energy ahs made it one of the most widely used power sources in modern time. By learning the rules, or laws, applying to the behavior of electricity, and by understanding the methods of producing, controlling, and using it, electricity may be "learned" without ever having determined its fundamental identity.
So question one: does anyone have any newer information that would contradict anything in this statement?
And question two: did anybody else find this a conceptual hurdle to get over?