“I really can’t do a good job, any job, explaining magnetic force in terms of something else that you’re more familiar with because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else that you’re more familiar with.”
Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate, 1983
Everyone knows what a magnet is. Magnets and their secret powers to attract and repel have been known and used since antiquity. What has remained a bit of a mystery since the time the Ancients first “played” with magnets, is how, exactly, a magnet works: What causes magnetism, the inexorable pulling force imposed on only certain materials. Unfortunately, the modern explanation of magnetism has followed Alice through the looking-glass of Quantum Physics, where no one is welcome who doesn’t sport a pocket protector…
I hope to provide in this short essay an easier way to think about the unimaginably small size, and incalculable number of tiny charged particles that act in peculiar ways to generate the invisible forces of a magnet. Hopefully, we can avoid the complexity inherent in any discussion of quantum forces. Instead of complex explanations, let’s approach the subject of magnetism in simpler terms that are easier to visualize and “understand.”
Magnets range in size from the size of the Earth, itself a giant, spinning magnet, to the infinitesimally tiny and essentially mass-less subatomic particle/wave form known as the electron. How small is an electron? No one has seen one, yet we know they exist. Viewed through an electron microscope, electrons are only discernible as a dense cloud resembling a dark smudge.
The electron comprises the negatively charged particle that orbits an atom’s nucleus composed of neutrons and positively charged protons. Electrons prefer a solitary life, but according to the Laws of Physics, they normally exist as pairs moving in shaped orbitals in the space surrounding the nucleus. The orbitals of nonmagnetic materials contain a set of evenly paired electrons. Individual electrons possess a “magnetic moment” related to their motion or movement. The Laws of Physics again dictate that each paired electron must “spin” opposite to its partner. This opposition cancels the individual moments, hence, zero magnetism.
Magnets are created by the presence of one or more unpaired electrons in the highly organized structure of the electron cloud. An unpaired atomic electron is a miniature magnet sporting its own tiny magnetic field due to its spin, which is not hampered by the presence of a second electron. The force exerted by the field has a direction and an intensity, a vector. The magnetic field created in most materials with an unpaired electron is weak and unremarkable. Some organize in such a way as to cancel the effect all together.
Only a few substances organize the tiny electronic magnets to spin in the same “direction.” In this case, they align their individual fields and amplify and direct their vectors to manifest the attractive force familiarly associated with a magnet. Convention has the direction of the field originating at the “north” pole aimed at the “south” pole. The magnets we are most familiar with are made of substances that have multiple unpaired electrons. The most common are iron (four unpaired electrons), nickel (two) and cobalt (three). When multiple quintillion like-minded electrons spin together, the result is a large force extending throughout the substance and into space: magnetism. Similar to electrostatic force where like charges repel and opposites attract, like magnetic poles repel and opposite poles attract each other.
The Earth works similarly to generate its protective magnetic field. The core of the Earth is primarily composed of iron. The Earth’s interior is hot, and the liquid outer core contains swirling columns caused by the rotation of the planet (Coriolis effect) which do two things: the effect removes heat and interacts with the solid inner core to create electrical currents which, in turn, create magnetic fields.
Which brings us, at last, to the electromagnet. ∅rsted verified the workings of the spinning magnet which is the Earth by showing that an electric current creates a magnetic field. This discovery led to the development of electromagnets, powered by electrons streaming along in uncountable numbers, generating a magnetic field in the adjacent space. The unpaired electrons in magnetic substances like iron “line up” to create north and south poles.