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Magnetism

by Chris Woodford. Last updated: October 2, 2013.

Science is our understanding of how the world works—and generally the world works fine whether we understand it or not. Take magnetism, for example. People have known about magnets for thousands of years and they've been using them practically, as compasses, for almost as long. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew as well as we do that lodestone (an iron-rich mineral) can attract other pieces of iron, while the ancient Chinese were making magnetic compasses set in intricate wooden inlays for their practice of Feng Shui (the art of carefully arranging a room) thousands of years before interior designers came on board. Science can sometimes be slow to catch up: we've only really learned how magnetism works in the last century, since the world inside atoms was first discovered and explored.

Photo: A typical horseshoe magnet. See the trace of brown rust on the top of the magnet's upper "leg"? That happens because the magnet is made of iron, which corrodes (rusts) in damp air.

What is magnetism?

The attractive magnetic field between two bar magnets shown up with iron filings.

Playing with magnets is one of the first bits of science most children discover. That's because magnets are easy to use, safe, and fun. They're also quite surprising. Remember when you first discovered that two magnets could snap together and stick like glue? Remember the force when you held two magnets close and felt them either attract (pull toward one another) or repel (push away)? One of the most amazing things about magnets is the way they can attract other magnets (or other magnetic materials) "at a distance," invisibly, through what we call a magnetic field.

To ancient people, magnetism must have seemed like magic. Thousands of years down the line, we understand what happens inside magnetic materials, how their atomic structure causes their magnetic properties, and how electricity and magnetism are really just two sides of the same coin: electromagnetism. Once scientists would have said magnetism was the strange, invisible force of attraction between certain materials; today, we're more likely to define it as a force created by electric currents (themselves caused by moving electrons).

Photo: The magnetic field between the opposite poles of two bar magnets that strongly attract one another. We can't normally see magnetic fields, but if you sprinkle iron filings (tiny bits shaved off an iron bar with a file) onto a piece of paper and hold it above the magnets you can see the field underneath. Photo by courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (where you'll find a bigger version of this image).

SIX things to know about magnets

Almost everyone knows these six basic facts about how magnets behave:

  1. A magnet has two ends called poles, one of which is called a north pole or north-seeking pole, while the other is called a south pole or south-seeking pole.
  2. The north pole of one magnet attracts the south pole of a second magnet, while the north pole of one magnet repels the other magnet's north pole. So we have the common saying: like poles repel, unlike poles attract.
  3. A magnet creates an invisible area of magnetism all around it called a magnetic field.
  4. The north pole of a magnet points roughly toward Earth's north pole and vice-versa. That's because Earth itself contains magnetic materials and behaves like a gigantic magnet.
  5. If you cut a bar magnet in half, it's a bit like cutting an earthworm in half! You get two brand new, smaller magnets, each with its own north and south pole. (This is, of course, a joke. You don't get two worms if you cut a worm in half. But you do get two magnets.)
  6. If you run a magnet a few times over an unmagnetized piece of a magnetic material (such as an iron nail), you can convert it into a magnet as well. This is called magnetization.

What is a magnetic field?

Magnetic fields visualized with computer graphics

Suppose you put a bar magnet (shaped like a rectangle, sometimes with the north and south poles painted different colors) or a horseshoe magnet (bent round into a tight U-shape) onto a table and place an iron nail nearby. If you push the magnet slowly toward the nail, there will come a point when the nail jumps across and sticks to the magnet. That's what we mean by magnets having an invisible magnetic field that extends all around them. Another way of describing this is to say that a magnet can "act at a distance": it can cause a pushing or pulling force on other objects it isn't actually touching).

Magnetic fields can penetrate through all kinds of materials, not just air. You probably have little notes stuck to the door of your refrigerator with brightly colored magnets—so you can see that magnetic fields cut through paper. You may have done the trick where you use a magnet to pick up a long chain of paperclips, with each clip magnetizing the next one along. That little experiment tells us that a magnetic field can penetrate through magnetic materials such as iron.

Photo: A colorful way to visualize invisible magnetic fields using a computer graphics program developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. In this three-dimensional chart, the height and color of the peaks shows the strength of the magnetic field at each point. Photo by courtesy of US Department of Energy.

Earth the Magnet

Hands holding a magnetic compass.

Why do magnets point north or south? A great English scientist named William Gilbert answered that question in 1600 when he suggested that Earth is a giant magnet.

Gilbert's theory was published in De Magnete (Of Magnets, Magnetic Bodies, and the Great Magnet of the Earth), the first big scientific book published in the English language (previously, scientific books had always been written in Latin). Like all true scientists, Gilbert tested many of his ideas with careful experiments.

Photo: We can use magnetic compasses like this to navigate because Earth is itself a giant magnet. Photo by Staff Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey courtesy of US Air Force.

We now know that Earth is magnetic because it's packed with molten rocks rich in magnetic materials such as iron. Just like a bar magnet, Earth's magnetic field stretches out into space, in a region called the magnetosphere, and can affect things around it. Aurora borealis northern lights When energetic particles zooming in from the Sun (the so-called solar wind) interact with Earth's magnetic field, we get amazing auroras in the sky (the northern lights or aurora borealis and the southern lights or aurora australis).

Photo: The Northern Lights above Bear Lake, Alaska. Photo by Senior Airman Joshua Strang courtesy of US Air Force.

What about other stars and planets—do they have magnetism too? We know the Sun has a magnetic field several times stronger than Earth's, but the Moon has no little or no magnetism. The other planets have magnetic fields too. Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, and Uranus have fields stronger than Earth's, while Mars, Mercury, and Venus have weaker fields. It's not yet known whether Pluto has a magnetic field (but then astronomers are still arguing over whether it's even a planet!).

How can we measure magnetism?

The strength of the field around a magnet depends on how close you get: it's strongest very near the magnet and falls off quickly as you move away. (That's why a small magnet on your table has to be quite close to things to attract them.) We measure the strength of magnetic fields in units called gauss and Tesla (the modern SI unit, named for Croatian-born US electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla, 1856–1943). It's interesting to note that the strength of Earth's magnetic field is very weak—about 1000 times weaker than that of a typical bar magnet. On Earth, gravity, not magnetism, is the force that sticks you to the floor. We'd notice Earth's magnetism much more if its gravity weren't so very strong.

What is an electromagnet?

The Homer Simpson or Mickey Mouse magnet that holds things to your refrigerator is a permanent magnet: it keeps hold of its magnetism all the time. Not all magnets work this way. You can make a temporary magnet by passing electricity through a coil of wire wrapped around an iron nail (a device you'll sometimes see referred to as a solenoid). Switch on the current and the nail becomes a magnet; switch it off again and the magnetism disappears. (This is the basic idea behind an electric chime doorbell: you make an electromagnet when you press the button, which pulls a hammer onto the chime bar—ding-dong!) Temporary magnets like this are called electromagnets—magnets worked by electricity—and they hint at a deeper connection between electricity and magnetism that we'll come on to in a moment.

Like permanent magnets, temporary electromagnets come in different sizes and strengths. You can make an electromagnet powerful enough to pick up paperclips with a single 1.5-volt battery. Use a much bigger voltage to make a bigger electric current and you can build an electromagnet powerful enough to pick up a car. That's how scrapyard electromagnets work. The strength of an electromagnet depends on two main things: the size of the electric current you use and the number of times you coil the wire. Increase either or both of these and you get a more powerful electromagnet.

Magnetism and electricity: the theory of electromagnetism

Electromagnets show that you can make magnetism using electricity. In fact, as European scientists discovered in the 19th century, electricity always makes magnetism when it moves about or changes. Every time an electric current flows in a wire, it generates a magnetic field all around it. Changing electricity, in short, produces magnetism.

James Clerk Maxwell

The reverse is true as well: you can make electricity using a changing pattern of magnetism. That's just as well or you wouldn't be reading these words now. Virtually all the electricity we use (with the exception of electricity produced from solar cells) is made by devices called generators. These use powerful magnets and coils of wire to produce electricity with the help of turbines, devices that  capture kinetic energy from fluids that move past them (typically wind, water, or steam made from coal, oil, or nuclear power).

How do you get electricity from magnetism? Simply speaking, you put a metal wire near a magnet (so the wire is inside the magnetic field). Move the wire or move the magnet so the magnetic field inside the wire fluctuates and electricity will flow through the wire. Keep moving the wire or magnet and you'll make electricity continually.

You can see from this that electricity and magnetism are partners. Wherever you find one, the other is never far away. The first person to explain this properly, in the mid-19th century, was a brilliant Scottish physicist named James Clerk Maxwell. His theory summed up everything then known about electricity and magnetism in four relatively simple mathematical formulas. Maxwell's equations, as we now call them, combined electricity and magnetism into a single, powerful theory we call electromagnetism. We now know that electromagnetism is one of the four fundamental forces that control everything that happens in our universe—and that's a powerful idea indeed!

Photo: James Clerk Maxwell. Public domain photo by courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What use are magnets?

Maybe you think magnets are interesting; maybe you think they're boring! What use are they, you might ask, apart from in childish magic tricks and scrapyards?

You might be surprised just how many things around you work by magnetism or electromagnetism. Every electric appliance with an electric motor in it (everything from your electric toothbrush to your lawn mower) uses magnets to turn electricity into motion. Motors use electricity to generate temporary magnetism in wire coils. The magnetic field thus produced pushes against the fixed field of a permanent magnet, spinning the inside part of the motor around at high speed. You can harness this spinning motion to drive all kinds of machines.

There are magnets in your refrigerator holding the door closed. Magnets read and write data (digital information) on your computer's hard drive and on cassette tapes in old-fashioned personal stereos. More magnets in your hi-fi loudspeakers or headphones help to turn stored music back into sounds you can hear. If you're sick with a serious internal illness, you might have a type of body scan called NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance), which draws the world beneath your skin using patterns of magnetic fields. Magnets are used to recycle your metal trash (steel food cans are strongly magnetic but aluminum drinks cans are not, so a magnet is an easy way to separate the two different metals).

NMR body scanner

Photo: An NMR scan like this builds up a detailed image of a patient's body (or, in this case, their head) on a computer screen using the magnetic activity of atoms in their body tissue. You can see the patient going into the scanner at the top and the image of their head on the screen below. Photo by courtesy of Warren Grant Magnuson Clinical Center (CC) and US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Which materials are magnetic?

Iron is the king of magnetic materials—the metal we all think of when we think of magnets. Most other common metals (such as copper, gold, silver, and aluminum) are, at first sight, nonmagnetic and most nonmetals (including paper, wood, plastic, concrete, glass, and textiles such as cotton and wool) are nonmagnetic too. But iron's not the only magnetic metal. Nickel, cobalt, and elements that belong to a part of the Periodic Table (the orderly arrangement chemists use to describe all the known chemical elements) known as the rare-Earth metals (notably samarium and neodymium) also make good magnets. Some of the best magnets are alloys (mixtures) of these elements with one another and with other elements. Ferrites (compounds made of iron, oxygen, and other elements) also make superb magnets. Lodestone (which is also called magnetite) is an example of a ferrite that's commonly found inside Earth (it has the chemical formula FeO·Fe2O3).

Materials like iron turn into good temporary magnets when you put a magnet near them, but tend to lose some or all of their magnetism when you take the magnet away again. We say these materials are magnetically soft. By contrast, alloys of iron and the rare-Earth metals retain most of their magnetism even when you remove them from a magnetic field, so they make good permanent magnets. We call those materials magnetically hard.

Is it true to say that all materials are either magnetic or nonmagnetic? People used to think that but scientists now know that the materials we consider to be nonmagnetic are also affected by magnetism, though extremely weakly. The extent to which a material can be magnetized is called its susceptibility.

How different materials react to magnetism

Scientists have a number of different words to describe how materials behave when you put them near a magnet (which is another way of saying when you put them inside a magnetic field). Broadly speaking, we can divide all materials into two kinds called paramagnetic and diamagnetic, while some of the paramagnetic materials are also ferromagnetic. It's important to be clear what these confusing words actually mean...

Paramagnetic

Make a sample of a magnetic material and hang it from a thread so it dangles in a magnetic field, and it will magnetize and line itself up so its magnetism is parallel to the field. As people have known for thousands of years, this is how exactly a compass needle behaves in Earth's magnetic field. Materials that behave this way are called paramagnetic. Metals such as aluminum and most nonmetals (which you might think aren't magnetic at all) are actually paramagnetic, but so weakly that we don't notice. Paramagnetism depends on temperature: the hotter a material is, the less it's likely to be affected by nearby magnets.

crushed aluminum cans ready for recycling

Photo: We think of aluminum (used in drinks cans like these) as nonmagnetic. That helps us separate for recycling our aluminum cans (which don't stick to magnets) from our steel ones (which do). In fact, both materials are magnetic. The difference is that aluminum is very weakly paramagnetic, while steel is strongly ferromagnetic. Photo courtesy of US Air Force.

Ferromagnetic

Some paramagnetic materials, notably iron and the rare-Earth metals, become strongly magnetized in a field and usually stay magnetized even when the field is removed. We say materials like this are ferromagnetic, which really just means they're "magnetic like iron." However, a ferromagnetic material will still lose its magnetism if you heat it above a certain point, known as its Curie temperature. Iron has a Curie temperature of 770°C (1300°F), while for nickel the Curie temperature is ~355°C (~670°F). If you heat an iron magnet to 800°C (~1500°F), it stops being a magnet. You can also destroy or weaken ferromagnetism if you hit a magnet repeatedly.

Diamagnetic

We can think of paramagnetic and ferromagnetic materials as being "fans" of magnetism: in a sense, they "like" magnetism and respond positively to it by allowing themselves to be magnetized. Not all materials respond so enthusiastically. If you hang some materials in magnetic fields, they get quite worked up inside and resist: they turn themselves into temporary magnets to resist magnetization and weakly repel magnetic fields outside themselves. We call these materials diamagnetic. Water and lots of organic (carbon-based) substances, such as benzene, behave this way. Tie a diamagnetic material to a thread and hang it in a magnetic field and it will turn so it makes an angle of 180° to the field.

What causes magnetism?

In the early 20th century, before scientists properly understood the structure of atoms and how they work, they came up with an easy-to-understand idea called the domain theory to explain magnetism. A few years later, when they understood atoms better, they found the domain theory still worked but could itself be explained, at a deeper level, by the theory of atoms. All the different aspects of magnetism we observe can be explained, ultimately, by talking about either domains, electrons in atoms, or both. Let's look at the two theories in turn.

Explaining magnetism with the domain theory

Imagine a factory somewhere that makes little bar magnets and ships them out to schools for their science lessons. Picture a guy called Dave who has to drive their truck, transporting lots of cardboard boxes, each one with a magnet inside it, to a different school. Dave doesn't have time to worry which way the boxes are stacked, so he piles them inside his truck any old how. The magnet inside one box could be pointing north while the one next to it is pointing south, east, or west. Overall, the magnets are all jumbled up so, even though magnetic fields leak out of each box, they all cancel one another out.

The same factory employs another truck driver called Bill who couldn't be more different. He likes everything tidy, so he loads his truck a different way, stacking all the boxes neatly so they line up exactly the same way. Can you see what will happen? The magnetic field from one box will align with the field from all the other boxes... effectively turning the truck into one giant magnet. The cab will be like a giant north pole and the back of the truck a huge south pole!

What happens inside these two trucks is what happens on a tiny scale inside magnetic materials. According to the domain theory, something like an iron bar contains lots of tiny pockets called domains. Each domain is a bit like a box with a magnet inside. See where we're heading? The iron bar is just like the truck. Normally, all its onboard "boxes" are arranged randomly and there's no overall magnetism: the iron is not magnetized. But arrange all the boxes in order, make them all face the same way, and you get an overall magnetic field: hey presto, the bar is magnetized. When you bring a magnet up to an unmagnetized iron bar and stroke it systematically and repeatedly up and down, what you're doing is rearranging all the magnetic "boxes" (domains) inside so they point the same way.

How magnetic domain theory explains what happens inside magnetized and unmagnetized materials
Domain theory explains what happens inside materials when they are magnetized. In an unmagnetized material (left), the domains are randomly arranged so there is no overall magnetic field. When you magnetize a material (right), by stroking a bar magnet over it repeatedly in the same direction, the domains rearrange so their magnetic fields align, producing a combined magnetic field in the same direction.

This theory explains how magnetism can arise, but can it explain some of the other things we know about magnets? If you chop a magnet in half, we know you get two magnets, each with a north and south pole. That makes sense according to the domain theory. If you cut a magnet in half, you get a smaller magnet that's still packed with domains, and these can be arranged north-south just like in the original magnet. What about the way magnetism disappears when you hit a magnet or heat it? That can be explained too. Imagine the van full of orderly boxes again. Drive it erratically, at really high speed, and it's a bit like shaking or hammering it. All the boxes will jumble up so they face different ways and the overall magnetism will disappear. Heating a magnet agitates it internally and jumbles up the boxes in much the same way.

Explaining magnetism with the atomic theory

The domain theory is easy enough to understand, but it's not a complete explanation. We know that iron bars aren't full of boxes packed with little magnets—and, if you think about, trying to explain a magnet by saying it's full of smaller magnets isn't really an explanation at all, because it immediately prompts the question: what are the smaller magnets made of? Fortunately, there's another theory we can turn to.

Back in the 19th century, scientists discovered they could use electricity to make magnetism and magnetism to make electricity. James Clerk Maxwell said that the two phenomena were really different aspects of the same thing—electromagnetism—like two sides of the same piece of paper. Electromagnetism was a brilliant idea, but it was more of a description than an explanation: it showed how things were rather than explaining why they were that way. It wasn't until the 20th century, when later scientists came to understand the world inside atoms, that the explanation for electromagnetism finally appeared.

Inside an atom: An artwork showing the arrangement of protons, neutrons, and electrons and the nucleus

We know everything is made of atoms and that atoms are made up of a central lump of matter called the nucleus. Minute particles called electrons move around the nucleus in orbit, a bit like satellites in the sky above us, but they also spin on their axis at the same time (just like spinning tops). We know electrons carry electric currents (flows of electricity) when they move through materials such as metals. Electrons are, in a sense, tiny particles of electricity. Now back in the 19th century, scientists knew that moving electricity made magnetism. In the 20th century, it became clear that magnetism was caused by electrons moving inside atoms and creating magnetic fields all around them. Domains are actually groups of atoms in which spinning electrons produce an overall magnetic field pointing one way or another.

Artwork: Magnetism is caused by electrons orbiting and spinning inside atoms. Note that this picture is not drawn to scale: most of an atom is empty space and the electrons are actually much further from the nucleus than I've drawn here.

Like the domain theory, atomic theory can explain many of the things we know about magnets, including paramagnetism (the way magnetic materials line up with magnetic fields). Most of the electrons in an atom exist in pairs that spin in opposite directions, so the magnetic effect of one electron in a pair cancels out the effect of its partner. But if an atom has some unpaired electrons (iron atoms have four), these produce net magnetic fields that line up with one another and turn the whole atom into a mini magnet. When you put a paramagnetic material such as iron in a magnetic field, the electrons change their motion to produce a magnetic field that lines up with the field outside.

What about diamagnetism? In diamagnetic materials, there are no unpaired electrons, so this doesn't happen. The atoms have little or no overall magnetism and are less affected by outside magnetic fields. However, the electrons orbiting inside them are electrically charged particles and, when they move in a magnetic field, they behave like any other electrically charged particles in a magnetic field and experience a force. That changes their orbits very slightly, producing some net magnetism that opposes the very thing that causes it (according to the classic bit of electromagnetic theory know as Lenz's law, which is related to the law of conservation of energy). As a result, the weak magnetic field they produce opposes the magnetic field that causes it—which is exactly what we see when diamagnetic materials try to "fight" the magnetic field they're placed in.

A brief history of magnetism

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Woodford, Chris. (2008) Magnetism. Retrieved from http://www.explainthatstuff.com/magnetism.html. [Accessed (Insert date here)]

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