The Angry Corrie 18: Apr-Jun 1994

Science Section: (iii) Electric Streams Explained

A startling new chemical theory looks poised to rock the scientific world and send shock waves through the hillwalking community. Our Wild Roving Reporter, 'Dr Douglas Benzine' brings you the theory which may offer an explanation for the phenomenon of 'Electric Streams'...

The Electric Brae near Girvan has always puzzled me, though I have never had the good fortune to see it. The discovery of an 'electric burn' on Arran puzzled me further, and after reading the report on The Very Inner Hebrides in TAC17, pp4,5, my mind was made up. I would have to find an explanation for these 'electric streams'.

However, I didn't get through the first term (and hopefully, by the time you read this, also the second) of an Electrical Engineering course without knowng how to get results quickly and with the minimum of effort. Unfortunately, nobody else seemed to know the answer, or if they did they weren't telling. I persevered, and eventually stumbled across a major piece of research nearing completion, being run jointly between the Departments of Physics and Chemistry.

This project is being kept very quiet, for fear of another research body stealing the idea (or even the results) and receiving the large amount of publicity resulting from such a discovery. It is for this reason that I have reluctantly been forced to adopt a pseudonym, The team leader, Professor Ian M Smart, even claimed that 'Just between you and me, this could be the biggest scientific advance since Newton discovered the apple'! (Surely 'pineapple'? -Ed.)

This analogy is particularly appropriate, for it was Newton's Third Law of Motion which provided the starting point. This states that the force experienced by an object is proportional to its acceleration; the coefficient of proportionality being the object's mass. Put mathematically, this means:


Normally, a burn will experience a gravitational force of F = gm, where at sea level g = 9.8 Ns2m-1. This is opposed by a frictional force, with the result that water tends to flow at a fairly constant rate. If this frictional force did not exist, rain landing at 900m would enter the sea at almost 300 miles per hour - making fording even the shallowest river suicidal! The more modest speed of most rivers is an everyday manifestation of friction. However, although friction can and will oppose motion, it cannot actually reverse an object's direction. In order to cause a river to actually flow uphill, we require another force to overcome gravity.

Recent analysis of the water in highland rivers has revealed high concentrations of deceasium ovylbiodegradoate (Dm+3OBe3-). This has some very worrying effects on public health, with the chemicals left after purification inducing the desire to wear kilts and visit craft shops. Although most locals seem to have developed immunity over the last few centuries, visitors soon fall victim to this affliction. It is thought that drinking the water untreated leads to the victim actually enjoying wandering pointlessly over and around mountains; tests are currently underway on sheep to verify this theory. Our main concern, however, is with the chemical effect that deceasium ovyl-biodegradoate has on the water.

On solution in water, the chemical splits into two separate ions: the positive deceasium (Dm+) and the negative ovyl-biodegradoate (OBe3-). It has been shown that these ions tend to affix themselves to water (H2O) molecules, as shown in the following diagram:

This of course leaves a large number of single deceasium ions in the water, but these are of little consequence. What is important is that, with these ions added, the grouping has a net charge of minus 5. It is therefore subject to the forces caused by electric and magnetic fields.

This next part of the research was the domain of the physicists, who unfortunately were more cagey than their counterparts in the Department of Chemistry. A bug was placed in the room where the researchers were due to meet, but after the meeting it was found to have become caught in a spiders web and was unable to give any information on the proceedings. A source close to the research team did, however, say 'I think they were talking about the north pole magnetically moving or something, dear. Can I get on with cleaning this floor now?'

This was backed up by another source who said 'Two of them were talking about magnetic fields. I was just cleaning the toilet, like, but I started listening 'cause I wondered if they were something to do with those crop circles; and they said if they changed then it could make a voltage, and make rivers go the wrong way. Sounds bloody dangerous to me; I think I'll stay away from farms just in case any of the fields are these magnetic ones.'

This information was sufficient to work out the lines along which the research has progressed. Clearly, the change in the Earth's magnetic field due to the magnetic North Pole moving is thought to induce a voltage. It has unfortunately proved impossible to obtain any information on the direction or magnitude of this voltage, or the significance of it, from the researchers. It was, however, here that my training as an electrical engineer (well, towards being an electrical engineer) proved to be useful. Where a voltage is induced across a charge carrier, a current will be induced. Here, the only charge carriers are the deceasium and ovyl-biodegradoate ions. Thus the current will consist of the positive ions moving in one direction and the negative ions moving in the other. Due to having a net charge of minus 5, the water molecule with ions attached will act as a large negative ion, the water molecules will thus experience a force due to the voltage. It is likely that the voltage will vary between different areas, due to interference to the magnetic field caused by mountains - just try listening to FM radio at Braemar if you don't believe me! This interference is likely to mean that while in some areas the electric effect is negligible, in others it is quite sizeable. Where the effect is large, and happens to exert a force upstream, the river will in fact flow uphill and we have an 'electric burn.'

On requesting confirmation, team member Dr Frank N Stein refused to give any information, insisting that I wait for publication in next month's Nature. When he was then presented with the information already gathered, he started hitting me. Eventually, after I had convinced him that I was not Roger Cooke, and had never been on That's Life, he stopped. He then admitted that my information was correct, but refused to tell me anything else and insisted I told no-one of what I knew, pointing out that he knew where I lived. Now, anyone know of a good bodyguard?

TAC 18 Index