There Are No Electrons (book review)

Education Technology
There Are No Electrons (book review)


There Are No Electrons: Electronics for Earthlings
Kenn Amdahl
Clearwater Publishing, 1991, $12.95

As an obsessively visual person (and someone who suffers from dyslexia), I have a hard time understanding concepts that aren’t graphical or story-driven in nature. Give me a spreadsheet of statistics on something or a math formula and I’ll tilt my head like a dog hearing a high pitch squeal; show me a handsome graphical presentation of the same information, a workable analogy, a mnemonic device, and I’ll never forget it. Given this “handicap,” I wish I’d had Kenn Amdahl’s book There Are No Electrons: Electronics for Earthlings when I was first learning elementary electronics.

There Are No Electrons teaches its often-intimidating subject through storytelling, really funny, bizarre, memorable storytelling. There’s a time-traveling magician, his lovely assistant, Belinda, and a bunch of frisky little green gremlin-like dudes. You’ll enjoy this book as much as a hilarious read as you will an electronics tutorial. You’ll also wonder if Mr. Amdahl has been properly ventilating his workspace. This is goofy, tripped-out stuff.

Right from the start, Amdahl asks you to throw out everything you think you know about electronics — a grand , dark conspiracy perpetuated by nerdball engineers and high school science teachers — and embrace the truth, which is that randy, partying gremlin-like beasties, called Little Greenies, are what actually make electricity happen. The male Greenies (think: electrons) love to party, and they’ll do anything they can to hook up with the female Greenies (protons) on the other side of the circuit. All the basic components in a circuit are explained through this fractured fairytale of male Greenies and their need to party. Along the way, we learn such eye-openers as the fact that magnetic lines of force are actually caused by Bruce, a furiously-fast-swimming Greenie duck (and millions of his kind), that heat in a circuit is caused by Greenies getting pissed at being forced to move through tight spaces, and that there’s a relationship between capacitance and lutefisk (um… sorta). We also learn that all of the great electronics pioneers are secretly Norwegian. For instance, George Simon Ohm’s real name? Lars Thorvillson.

Okay, so some of There Are No Electrons is just plain inane, but I guarantee that, if you read it, you’ll never look at a circuit the same way again. And I don’t know about you, but I like the idea of little circuit gremlins hell-bent on partying much more than dull ol’ subatomic particles. As the author points out, via Amdahl’s Law, the electron models that we use, and analogies such as water pressure/flow to explain electron flow, and concepts like electron holes — they’re all just models used to simplify and explain complex physical objects and behavior — models that change over time as we learn more. Amdahl’s Law is stated as: “Don’t mistake your watermelon for the universe” (a reference to the analogy of the universe as being a watermelon, the stars its seeds). So, as absurd as the Greenie “theory” is, if it helps you better understand how electronics work, why not? It sure helped me. Just don’t mistake it for the truth. There are no greenies (altho I swear I can hear them giggling and high-fiving each other within the waveforms of my oscilloscope).

Full Disclosure: I am half Norwegian.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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