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.

10 thoughts on “There Are No Electrons (book review)

  1. myx_2000 says:

    This is an awesome book. It made so many concepts become understandable. Better yet, you don’t feel like you are reading stereo instructions. He tricks you into learning without the headaches. It should be made into a movie. I thought about how visual the book is and how easily it could be done. As a graphics animator, I have been thinking about how to make ducks in speedboats putting off magnetic waves.

    For now, I gotta find that music! Say Hey to Mike for me, will ya?

    1. KennAmdahl says:

      to mx_2000 — I’m having lunch with Mike. I’ll tell him hi for you.

  2. KennAmdahl says:

    OK, so I might quibble with the word “inane.” I think you probably meant “quirky” or “creative on a genius level” or something like that. Other than that, this is a great review, very perceptive and well written. You are obviously some sort of genius yourself, and possibly a saint. Thank you so much. You made my day.
    Kenn Amdahl

    1. Gareth Branwyn says:

      Kenn Amdahl, my hero! *MY* Forrest Mims! (OK, Forrest Mims is my Forrest Mims, but still…). So great to see you here! What are you working on these days?

      I meant “inane” in the most endearing way possible. Like Python is inane (as in Monty, not as in OOP), like an eye-rolling, groaning pun is inane.

      1. KennAmdahl says:

        OK, as long as it’s an eye-rolling, groaning, Mony Python kind of way. I won’t turn you in.

        As to me, I’m trying to leave the nineteenth century behind and join the rest of you. I started one of those blog thingys on my Clearwater website, because everyone says I’m supposed to, but haven’t told anyone yet. I don’t want it to turn into an assignment or homework. I miss my quill and sealing wax.

        I released one of my goofy novels, Jumper and the Bones, as a Kindle book and have been astounded that a couple of people (maybe nine) actually bought it. Right now, I’m trying to finish writing a book about new and conflicting theories about Alzheimer’s, ALS and MS. Its working title is Too Many Clues. It’s really about my own attempt to learn about them after a friend was crippled by a disease related to ALS last year. I tell you what, it’s tough to write about those diseases in a perky, funny way, but I’m giving it a shot. There is some amazing science going on. But I only write what I understand, so it’s going to be a very short book.

        I haven’t gotten into the habit of reading any blogs yet, but a google alert informs me when my name gets mentioned. It’s usually on ebay, and one of my books is available for thirty cents, which means so much to an author (“Autographed by the author! Near new condition! Less than a dollar!”). That’s how I found your review. I know you’ve mentioned me a time or two before, and thanks. Your review was so generous and kind, I bit the bullet and figured out how to “join” your community so I could say thank you. Warms my heart.

        Now if I could just do something to warm my feet.

        take care, keep up the good work.

  3. Richard Conn Henry says:

    The thing is that Amdahl is right, there ARE no electrons. There are only observations (and we have NO idea what those are); some of those observations we label with the word electrons. That unfortunately makes you think that electrons are things. Well, there ARE no things. There are only observations. The universe is in your mind.

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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. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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