Electrostatics, and Then I Found Five Dollars

A couple of funny things happened to me today. Over break I got a series of e-mails with tips for taking the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a scenario-based assessment of critical thinking skills. The names for each tip started with the letters B and S: "Be Specific", "Be Skeptical", etc.* However, the e-mail for tip number four was:

TIP #4: READ DIRECTIONS ($5.00 extra to anyone who can come up with a version of this tip's name that starts with an “S”) Check that you’ve done what you’ve been asked to do. If you’re being asked to play a role, think about who you are suppose to be writing for. Don’t assume that your audience knows what you’re writing about.

I fired back a tongue-in-cheek response, suggesting a bunch of S-phrases like "Satiate Curiosity", "Suppose Nothing", "Study Directions", and so forth. I didn't realize they were serious about the money, but a week later I got a response: they wanted me to stop by the Dean's office and pick up the five dollars. That was... rather unexpected. :-)

A while later, I was sitting in a CMC bathroom stall, reading the graffiti ("Kyia can't normalize a wave function", et. al.), and moved slightly to one side. Suddenly, my head prickled. Moving around, I discovered that there was an enormous electrostatic gradient between the two plastic panels of the stall. My conjecture is that when people take off their coats, the position of the door forces them to brush against only one of the two walls. Rubbing coats against the plastic deposits a large static charge on that wall, and sets up a strong field. Low humidity made it especially noticeable--moving my hand within a foot of the wall resulted in audible pops as the potential difference broke down the air. Yay electrostatics!

*Yes, I thought it was a poor choice for an acronym, too.

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