a shocking truth
Once a year, the Science Is Magic Club accepts applications for new members and requires that applicants explain the science that powers their tricks. When a particularly illusive applicant named Harriet Whodini refuses to reveal the source of her shocking ability to zap people, Aubrey, Andre, and 12-year-old Kid Investigator Megha are called in to investigate.
meet our kid investigator
Megha M. (she/her)
from Alexandria, Virginia
favorite school subject: history
meet our expert
Jocelyn Bosley (she/her or they/them)
Curator of Funsize Physics
fun fact: "Atoms are so small that you would need to stack 1,000,000 atoms to equal the thickness of a sheet of paper!"
- atoms: the smallest building blocks of matter which are made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons
- electrons: negatively charged particles that circle around the nucleus of an atom
- protons: positively charged particles found in the nucleus of an atom
- neutrons: particles found in the nucleus of an atom that has no electrical charge
- electricity: the flow of electrons and protons
- static electricity: the buildup of electrons that results in a negative charge
- positive charge: a charge that exists when there are more protons than electrons in an object
- negative charge: a charge that exists when there are more electrons than protons in an object
- friction: the force of resistance when one object rubs against another
- discharge: the flow of electrons from one charged object to another object that restores the balance of protons and electrons
- 3-PS2-3 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions: Ask questions to determine cause and effect relationships of electric or magnetic interactions between two objects not in contact with each other.
A.J.: Newton! Chill out. I really should have thought about the consequences of having a barking cat, but too late now I guess.
AUBREY: I’ll get it!
ANDRE: Who is it!?
AUBREY: It’s Maggie the Mailperson!
MAGGIE: Hey Andre, hey A.J.! Here’s your mail. Looks like the letter on top might be something important.
AUBREY: Hm… It’s addressed to the STEAM Daydream Team. “Not top secret.” That’s weird…
MAGGIE: Certainly suspicious… Let me know what it turns out to be!
A.J.: Before you open it, we should— Nevermind.
AUBREY: Dear A.J., Aubrey, and Andre, I need your help! Once a year, we accept applications to join an exclusive group called the Science is Magic Club. Applicants must meet the following 3 requirements to be admitted to the club. One: Must be human.
A.J.: Sorry, Newton. No barking cats allowed.
AUBREY: Two: Must demonstrate magical abilities.
ANDRE: Oh, I have a magical ability! I can burp on command.
AUBREY: Andre, you didn’t let me finish. It says right here, “Magical abilities may not include burping.”
AUBREY: And number 3. Must be able to explain the science behind their powers. Unfortunately, we’ve run into an issue this year. One applicant refuses to reveal the scientific source behind her magic, citing the worldwide magician's code of secrecy. She has shocked everyone with her ability to deliver a tiny zap with a single touch. If these are supernatural powers, the applicant would be disqualified from joining the Science is Magic Club, but we can’t be sure. We’d like the help of the investigative team at STEAM Daydream to reveal the scientific origins of her magic. Sincerely, Dr. Hoodwink, President of the Science is Magic Club.
A.J.: Hm. Should we do it?
AUBREY: What do you mean, “Should we do it?” We have to do it!
A.J.: But how do we get in touch with this Dr. Hoodwink? There’s no phone number or address!
AUBREY: Look! Here! On the back there’s an address and a time… 2 pm.
A.J.: 2 pm? That’s in 10 minutes! You guys better hit the road! I’ll tell the Kid Investigator to meet you there.
ANDRE: I’ll grab our helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, and shoulder pads.
AUBREY: I’ll grab the roller blades!
ANDRE: Let’s roll! See ya later, A.J.!
A.J.: You’re listening to Season 2 of STEAM Daydream with National Children’s Museum, where we solve the world’s many STEAM mysteries one episode at a time: we’ll observe, we’ll ask questions, we’ll investigate, we’ll research, and then we’ll connect the dots! I’m A.J., and I was just about to get in touch with our Kid Investigator. One second…
A.J.: Megha, it’s A.J.. Aubrey and Andre are out responding to a call, and I told them you’d meet them. I’m sending you the address now.
MEGHA: Aubrey? Andre?
AUBREY: Hello! You must be Megha, our 12-year-old Kid Investigator from Alexandria, Virginia.
MEGHA: That’s me! A.J. told me all about our not-so-top-secret mission. Are we sure we’re in the right place?
ANDRE: Yep, this is the place…
DR. HOODWINK: Come in. I’m Dr. Hoodwink, the President of the Science is Magic Club. You’re just in time. This year’s applicants were just about to take the stage to demonstrate their magic abilities. Harriet Whodini is up next. She’s the one I was telling you about in my letter.
MEGHA: Why isn’t she wearing shoes?
ANDRE: I don’t know, but those are wicked cool lightning bolt socks.
AUBREY: Is that a carpet she’s carrying?
DR. HOODWINK: She told us the carpet is just a prop to help set the scene… but I don’t know. There must be something special about it.
HARRIET WHODINI: Good afternoon, mystifying magicians and skeptical scientists. I am the Great Harriet Whodini. To demonstrate my magic today, I’m going to need a volunteer from the audience. Anyone?
AUBREY: Oh! Me, me me!
MEGHA: Good idea, Aubrey, you’ll be able to observe what’s going on up close.
HARRIET WHODINI: You there, in the roller blades. What’s your name?
HARRIET WHODINI: Aubrey, thank you for joining me. I’m going to ask you to stand at one edge of this carpet, and I’m going to stand at the other end.
HARRIET WHODINI: Now, I am just an ordinary human. But today, I am prepared to perform science that is nothing short of magic. Today, I will demonstrate my ability to shock someone with a single touch. Don’t worry, Aubrey, it won’t hurt. Could you hold out your right hand in front of you?
HARRIET WHODINI: Great, now I’m going to make my way over to you slowly across the carpet, and I’m going to shake your hand.
HARRIET WHODINI: Sorry, Aubrey. It didn’t hurt, did it?
AUBREY: Well, no. Not exactly. It just surprised me—I guess you could say it… shocked me!
HARRIET WHODINI: And what did it feel like?
AUBREY: Well, it felt like a quick zap. I could feel it most on my index finger, where your hand first made contact. Actually, it felt a lot like when I go down the slide in the park and then touch someone or something else and feel a zap.
DR. HOODWINK: Ok, Harriet, it’s obvious that you’re human and that you have magic ability to shock people, but if you want to join this most prestigious club, then it’s time to explain the science that powers your trick.
HARRIET WHODINI: I can assure you that my magic is purely science. However, I cannot reveal the source of my magic, Dr. Hoodwink. As I have already explained, I am sworn to secrecy by the worldwide magician’s oath. I do hope you understand.
DR. HOODWINK: I can’t admit you into this club without confirmation that your magic comes from science and not some sort of supernatural trickery, so I’ve called in the STEAM Daydream Team to help get to the bottom of things today. If you’re so certain your magic meets our scientific standards, you won’t mind if they do a little investigating, do you?Harriet Whodini: By all means, investigate!
ANDRE: You heard her, Megha—it’s time to get to work.
MEGHA: Right behind you, Andre!
HARRIET WHODINI: Ah, the legendary STEAM Daydream Team. It’s lovely to meet you all.
MEGHA: It’s great to meet you too, but I’ll skip the handshake.
ANDRE: Aubrey, are you feeling ok after that shock?
AUBREY: Physically, I’m ok. But, I’m a little perplexed. It was really strange. You guys gotta try it.
HARRIET WHODINI: Well, in the spirit of full cooperation, I’m happy to shock your two friends.
MEGHA: Andre, you go ahead. I’ll stay down here to observe and take notes.
ANDRE: Before you zap me, do you mind if I give you a quick scan with my metal detector? You know, just to check whether you have any tools hidden up your sleeve?
ANDRE: Ok, she’s clear…and I’m ready for a zap.
HARRIET WHODINI: Ok. Here comes the shock…
ANDRE: Woah! That’ll wake you up. It almost feels like when your foot falls asleep. Like pins and needles, but much less powerful.
MEGHA: Hmm. Do you mind shocking me, too?
HARRIET WHODINI: Certainly, come on up!
MEGHA: Could you come down to me instead?
HARRIET WHODINI: Oh, come on. No need to get stage fright. Come up here so the audience can see!
MEGHA: Well, actually, I’m curious if you can shock someone off the stage where you can’t control your environment.
HARRIET WHODINI: Ah, I see—you’re thinking like an investigator. Very clever. But like every scientist, I value controlled environments, which is why I only perform my magic up on stage. I’ll tell you what. I’ll come down to shake your hand, but I won’t shock you. All right. Hold out your hand?
MEGHA: Hm, I didn’t feel a thing. Interesting.. Andre, Aubrey, let’s talk backstage.
AUBREY: I’m stumped, guys. Do you have any idea how she’s shocking people?
MEGHA: Well, let’s start with what we know.
AUBREY: We know that she’s not hiding any tools—good thinking on bringing the metal detector, Andre.
MEGHA: We also know that her magic seemed to work on stage when she zapped you and Andre, but it didn’t work when she left the stage.
AUBREY: True. So what was different about the stage?
ANDRE: The only difference I observed is the carpet. She dragged her feet across the carpet up on stage, and zap! But when she came off stage, she walked across wood floors, and no zap.
AUBREY: If her power to deliver zaps is connected to dragging her feet across the rug, I wonder if the lightning bolt socks might be a clue. Come to think of it, the zap did feel like a mini bolt of lightning.
JOCELYN: Pardon me, STEAM Daydream Team?
ANDRE: Can we help you?
JOCELYN: Nope, but I think I might be able to help you. I am Jocelyn Bosley. I work at the University of Nebraska, and I curate a website called Fun Size Physics.
AUBREY: What's physics?
JOCELYN: Physics is the part of science that studies what the universe is made of. This boils down mostly to two things: matter and motion.
ANDRE: And you think physics has something to do with Harriet's magic trick?
JOCELYN: I believe so. Let's start from the beginning. So atoms are the building blocks of all matter. You might think of them as the Legos and atoms are made up of even tinier particles called protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons have a positive charge, and the neutrons have no charge, but they're kind of there to act like the glue to hold all these positively charged protons together. And then you have these very light particles called electrons that have a negative charge. In an electrically neutral atom, you have the same number of protons and electrons, you have the same number of positive charges and negative charges. You can think of it like a teeter totter where the two sides are perfectly balanced.
MEGHA: It sounds like the balance of protons and electrons is pretty important. What happens if the balance is thrown off?
JOCELYN: So electrons, those negatively charged light particles whizzing around the outside of an atom, those electrons can be transferred from one atom to another or from one object to another through friction. Friction is what happens when two materials are rubbed together. And so if you have two objects rubbing against each other, one can donate—or the other one can steal—an electron and so an electron gets transferred from one to the other. When that happens, the atom that lost an electron, now its teeter totter has shifted in the direction of positive. On the flip side, the atom that gained an electron its teeter totter has shifted toward the negative side it gained a negatively charged particle. So now that atom has a negative charge.
AUBREY: So electrical charge by friction happens when two materials are rubbed against each other. Kind of like when Harriet rubbed her socks on the carpet as she made her way across the stage.
ANDRE: So we know an electric charge is involved, but how does that translate to the shock I felt when Harriet touched me?
JOCELYN: So static electricity is what happens when this transfer of electrons from one object to another happens many times so that you get a buildup of electrons on one surface and you have another surface that has lost a bunch of electrons. So you have a surface that is negatively charged and a surface that is positively charged. Electric discharge happens because now you have these two surfaces and those electrons on the negative surface really want to get back over to that positively charged surface. So if you bring these two surfaces close enough together, those electrons are going to be able to jump from the negatively charged surface over to the positively charged surface. When that electric discharge happens, you might see a little flash of light or feel a zap on your finger. A spark like a tiny bolt of lightning.
DR. HOODWINK: Up next is Jocelyn, who will be piercing this Granny Smith apple with this ordinary plastic straw.
JOCELYN: Oh, that's me. I'm applying to join the Science Is Magic Club today, too. Wish me luck.
ANDRE: You don't need luck. You're a science whiz!
MEGHA: Yeah. Thanks for helping us with your knowledge and research, Jocelyn. I think we have everything we need to solve this mystery!
AUBREY: Wait! We don’t have everything we need… My thinking cap! Now, I’m ready.
MEGHA: Looking good, Aubrey. Now, let’s connect the dots!
MEGHA: Start from the top, Andre!
ANDRE: So the socks on Harriet’s feet and the carpet are made up of atoms, like everything else we see in the world.
AUBREY: Naturally, the socks and carpet are electrically neutral because they have the same number of positive protons and negative electrons.
ANDRE: But when Harriet dragged her socks across the carpet, the loose electrons that make up the carpet were rubbed free and jumped to her socks.
MEGHA: Which left the surface of Harriet’s socks with a negative charge, called static electricity.
AUBREY: After Harriet made it across the carpet and built up a negative charge, she touched Andre and I, who were both electrically neutral. The extra electrons on Harriet jumped over to us when our hands came into contact.
ANDRE: The discharge of the electrical buildup on Harriet resulted in the zap! That explains why Megha didn’t get shocked when Harriet walked on wood. The wood isn’t good at giving up its electrons.
AUBREY: Dr. Hoodwink! We have your answer!
MEGHA: The power behind Harriet’s mysterious zapping power is in fact science. It’s called static electricity!
DR. HOODWINK: Of course. Static electricity! It’s confirmed then, Harriet Whodini, you are officially the newest member of the Science is Magic Club! Thank you Megha, Andre, and Aubrey. On behalf of our club we’d like to make you honorary members for the important work you did today. Congratulations!
A.J.: There you have it, Dreamers, another STEAM mystery solved! You can harness the power of static electricity like Harriet Whodini, too! Now before you go shocking the people in your life with your new knowledge, be sure to ask their permission. A few visitors at National Children’s Museum shared their shocking experiences with static electricity.
CHILD 1: Static electricity kind of look slike little small lightning bolts.
CHILD 2: A lightning bolt looks like a zig zag.
CHILD 3: So I went down a metal slide once and then I felt a shock. Probably whenever you go down super fast it rubs together that makes a shock.
CHILD 4: Sometimes my dad rubs his feet on a little blanket or something and then he pokes me and then it feels like when it happens when I sometimes go down the slide.
A.J.: The next time you visit us at National Children’s Museum, head to the Weather Worlds green screen experience, where with a simple flick of your wrist you can send lightning bolts flying through the air. Wondering how lightning bolts are related to today’s episode? Well, the lightning bolts you see during storms are the result of static electricity built up in storm clouds. It’s the very static electricity Harriet Whodini used to shock people, except on a much larger scale. If this episode got you wondering what other magic tricks are made possible by physics, don’t miss our Engineering Games + Play exhibit, where you can discover other concepts including Newton’s law of gravity and Bernoulli’s principle on air flow! That’s all for today’s episode, Dreamers! Join us next time to sort out another STEAM mystery about where trash goes. In the meantime, if you enjoyed today’s show, please leave a review to help other curious kids discover our podcast. Be sure to subscribe wherever you’re listening so you don’t miss our next adventure. You can find more STEAM programs and resources on our website at www.nationalchildrensmuseum.org. Season 2 of STEAM Daydream with National Children’s Museum is generously sponsored by GEICO. It’s narrated by me, A.J. Calbert, produced by Paige Childs, with sound design and engineering by Maddie Zampanti of Conceptual Podcasting.