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Physics/Electricity and shock


QUESTION: I have always curious about how and in what situation a shock would occur. Electricity is always looking for a quick and simple path to the ground but I see conflicting answers.

1. The most popular example is the bird not getting shocked when standing on a live wire because of not being grounded. If you were to sever the wire and hold each end would that now and shock you regardless of being grounded? I would think yes because you are creating a path.

2. If you were to jam metal only into the a hot prong of the outlet but wearing thick rubber sole sneakers or on a wooden plank would you get shocked? I would think yes because electricity has no where to go and you are creating a parallel path regardless.

3. Same as question 2 but you bend the metal to hit both hot and neutral? I would say no shock because you are not grounded and electricity has a much better non resistive path.

4.Getting struck by lightning while skydiving? This confuses me because you are not grounded (like lineman repairing suspended by helicopter) but if you are struck electricity must go somewhere no?  

I keep getting conflicting answers indicating no ground no shock (lineman in helicopter) but I would think  if you create a parallel path to the current flowing you would get some flow grounded or not.

I keep seeing conflicting opinions as well as videos (maybe some videos are fake).

Thank you for your time.

ANSWER: 1)  Of course, because then voltage would build up across you in the circuit.  You have to consider the whole circuit.

2) No, no place to go, you would charge up minimally but no serious current flow through the insulator.

3) No, the path is through the metal to ground.

4)  Yes, because it's dielectric breakdown of air and humans are far more conductive than air.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you for the very quick and concise response.

I can understand answer 1 because I am now creating a circuit (two contact points) and number 4 because lighting is so powerful that no insulator is a match.

I am having difficulty understanding 2 and 3 in layman terms. If electricity is going through all parallel paths and into me, why does being grounded (creating a circuit) intensify the shock significantly? The electricity has to pass through my entire body (arms, legs to the feet) before reaching the insulator(rubber shoes/wooden plank).

I can understand minimal to no shock if wearing rubber gloves because the resistance is stopping the electricity from contacting my body but once inside my body, how does insulation make any difference? Insulated boots = no pain but barefoot = fatal with the same amps/volts.

Perhaps you misunderstand the scale of what you're asking.  If you're insulated, your internal capacitance is in the picofarad range.  That's trillionths of a Farad, so if you need to charge up to a million volts you still only need microcoulombs of charge, and that stops once it's on you.  Even if that happens fast, like a millisecond, that's milliamps of current.  Maybe a whole amp if it lasts just a microsecond.  Whereas if you were struck by lightning you would have something like 100,000 Amps go through you, possible for a few milliseconds.  Meaning millions of times the current and therefore charge.  For house voltages that are much less, same idea applies...except the extended timescale makes the situation even more extreme.  For number three, obviously electricity would take the path of least resistance.  I'm not sure I can help you further there unless you've ever worked on parallel circuits...almost all the available current would go through the conductor to ground and not through the enormous resistor that you in you represent in comparison.


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Dr. Stephen O. Nelson


I can answer most basic physics questions, physics questions about science fiction and everyday observations of physics, etc. I'm also usually good for science fair advice (I'm the regional science fair director). I do not answer homework problems. I will occasionally point out where a homework solution went wrong, though. I'm usually good at explaining odd observations that seem counterintuitive, energy science, nuclear physics, nuclear astrophysics, and alternative theories of physics are my specialties.


I was a physics professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, research in nuclear technology and nuclear astrophysics. My travelling science show saw over 20,000 students of all ages. I taught physics, nuclear chemistry, radiation safety, vacuum technology, and answer tons of questions as I tour schools encouraging students to consider careers in science. I moved on to a non-academic job with more research just recently.

Ph. D. from Duke University in physics, research in nuclear astrophysics reactions, gamma-ray astronomy technology, and advanced nuclear reactors.

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