Wires are a part of our lives. Depending on your understanding of electronics, some may stand out to you more than others.

For example, ubiquitous white wires dangling from our ears, made famous by those wild Apple commercials in the early iPod days, are enough to halt a conversation before it starts. Whoops, they can't hear me, you say to yourself.

An early "Portlandia" episode also gives nod to the tangled mess that the Apple 'buds can become once placed a pocket. Jeff Goldblum cameos in the episode as purveyor of "The Knot Store," and offers a snow globe-style presentation of tangled earbud wires as giftable art.

"An artist we work with makes these by jamming them into his pocket," whispers Goldblum, before he starts purring like a cat. (Awesome show, by the way.)


But we all know that earbud knot game. Now that you have the iPod wires in mind, I want you to picture a pair of car jumper cables.

Big difference, right? Why are wires various sizes, and why do the iPod wires get so tangled?

Electricity is just electrons that are moving. They move very fast — close to the speed of light. With more volts comes more energy (and therefore speed), but that's only part of the equation.

Current is electricity's other dimension.

People often use a river as an example of how voltage and current works. Picture a fast-moving, tiny stream. Better yet, picture a small waterfall. Because of the pull of gravity (no relation to our example, but that's what's making the water flow fast in this case), the water moves very fast. But there's only a little of it, so the amount of water moving at any time is relatively low.


This example is like a high voltage with a low current. Now picture a very wide and deep river that has a low apparent speed. Because so much water is moving at once, we can compare this to high current, but at a low voltage because the speed appears to be low.

Let's get back to the wires in our lives. The iPod cable is very thin, and the reason it tangles is that the tiny wires leading to the earbuds must be made to be durable. Durable enough to jam in your pocket repeatedly, for instance. The insulation of those wires is just such that they'll flex, but not stress the small wires inside when they're bent. So since those wires are very thin, we can intuit that the current is low in the earbud circuit.

Move over to the car jumper cable, and you start thinking that there must be a lot of current over those wires. And you would be right. Car batteries are only 18 volts (on average), but need to supply big current draws when starting a cold engine. It takes more "oomph" to start a motor than to keep it going.

Wires of all shapes and sizes inhabit our lives, and you can usually tell a little about what the electrons are doing, just based on the size of the cable. IFL science!

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