Magnets Made Simple(?)

“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.



Things My Mother Said

Eleanor May Hastings, my Mom, grew up in south-central Missouri, a hilly backwoods area of the country known as “the Ozarks.”  Although it’s entirely unclear why “Ozarks” is plural (no one having discovered more than the one “Ozark”,) the denizens-of-the-Ozarks’ unique culture and singular ways of speechifying lend themselves to endearing and often preposterous expressions.

Growing up in my mother’s house, my two younger brothers and I were often treated to spontaneous colloquialisms whenever she felt moved to communicate emotions like exasperation or frustration, or just the urge to colorfully articulate an opinion.  Believe me; we three gave her ample occasion to express herself.  Here is my collection, the result of much recollection and soul-searching on the part of my brothers, Scott and Steve, and a nephew or two:

“Damnable damnations!!”  (Keep in mind, Mom is a “devout” Catholic, and thereby prevented from uttering any really profound blasphemies or curses…hence, the double exclamation points…)

“What a revolting development!” put a fine point on her disappointment with us.

“Heavens to Murgatroyd!”  Although I might be conflating this saying with a famous catch phrase of Snagglepuss, a 60s’ cartoon character, Mom surely heard this when it was uttered by Bert Lahr in the 1944 film, “Meet the People.”  It certainly sounds like something she’d say…

An especially chilly day in the middle of winter was usually described as “colder than a well-digger’s heinie.”  I suggest you look it up, if you’re curious.

If it was an especially dark night, or cave (Missouri is riddled with them), or movie theater, it was “darker than the inside of a well-digger’s heinie.”  Pretty dark, huh?  (Editor’s Note:  also not politically correct, but WWI was a long time ago, so you Krauts should just get over it…)

“You are slower than molasses in January” was usually combined with “will you please hurry up and get your socks and shoes on?”

“That smells to High Heaven!”  Supposedly this refers to the Third Heaven where God resides, so that is one lofty odor…

“Where in the world (did you find that; get so filthy; do you think you are going; etc.)”  Matt Lauer and Waldo should be aware of possible copyright infringement…

Where did Mother get her innate talent and deep reservoir of sayings, you may wonder?  Consider this cute expression her father was fond of saying when ticked-off at a neighbor:  “Go fry yer ass…”

…and my favorite regional sentiment regarding the pervasiveness of something in the general area (such as Starbucks coffee shops, or bass fishermen:)  “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a (fill in the blank.)”  Now back to the hilarity…

“Like trying to herd cats” was usually employed when attempting to gather we wee ones for a car trip.  If you’ve tried it, you know.

The definitive retort to a childish “I don’t like you:”  “I’m not trying to win a popularity contest!”

“People in Hell want ice water!”  One her many references to The Place Where Bad Catholics Go, this gem usually followed a complaint by me, and preceded the outburst which generated the slam-dunk “I’m not trying to win a popularity contest!”  Got that?  (See above.)

My Mom’s Dad was a good, bad driver who would careen around rural Missouri’s gravel roads at 60-plus miles per well into his “senior years.”  A car ride with Grandpa was aptly described as “hanging on for dear life!”

Mom would colorfully depict over-lengthy Sunday sermons, boring movies, and visits by long-winded acquaintances equally as “longer than a month of Sundays.”

The moonless, night sky was often termed “darker than the Black Hole of Calcutta.”  Presumably, the Black Hole was a dungeon with no windows; how Mom knows of it is anybody’s guess.  (Cross-reference: Well digger’s heinie, see above.)

Speediness has a rather randy equivalent expression:  “faster than a March hare in heat.”  Something to think about.

“He is blacker than the ace of spades.”  Not politically correct, perhaps, but descriptive.   (Recall that Missouri was a Confederate State…Go Rebs…)

“I swear you would try the patience of Job.”  Of course, this is Job of Bible fame: Job lost his sons, his livestock, and his complexion and still kept his patience with God.  Do you get some idea, now, how much we got on my mother’s nerves?

“When Hell freezes over.”  As in: “I’ll let you buy a motorcycle when…”  Similar to “It’ll be a cold day in Hell…” but, presumably, the latter is more likely given the recent shift in global weather. However, the chance of Hell actually freezing solid is fairly remote; I think we all will agree…

“Good riddance to bad rubbish” was frequently uttered within ear shot of me and my friends upon leaving the house – fondly, of course.

When faced with, for example, a questionable color choice in a friend’s clothing, Mom would opine, “There’s no accounting for taste, like the old woman who kissed the cow.”  The moral:  Taste, like selecting which farm animal to buss, is purely subjective.

“Why on God’s Green Earth…” questioned various motivations in our young lives.

In July and August in the Midwest, Mom would unfailingly state the obvious:  “It’s hotter than the Hinges of Hades.”  Hell hath no fury like an overheated woman.

“It takes all kinds to make a world!” is seemingly a paean to multiculti values, but more likely an expression of frustration at the shortcomings of another…without judgment…of course…

WARNING:  Content may be unsuitable for children and sensitive individuals.  The following naked threat came without warning, whenever I reached across the dinner table in front of her plate to pick up the ketchup (for example:)  “Do you want to draw back a bloody stump?”

“I don’t give a tinker’s damn!”  (Insert meaning here.)

Then there’s the self-explanatory, “There’s enough dirt in your ears to grow corn!”…

…and the entirely incomprehensible, “Heavenly days and catnip tea!”

And, finally:  “Life’s too short” to sweat the small stuff.

We love you, Mom.

What is a Museum Docent?

To be a docent means more than the dictionary definition:

“An individual who leads guided tours, especially at a museum or art gallery.”

Yes, a docent is a tour guide, but much more.  As a docent, you make a link between patrons and the collection of artifacts they came to see.  Through the docent’s eyes, patrons can experience more, learn more and have fun in the process.

A docent more than anyone shows the face of the Museum to visitors.  Wonderful as the Museum’s collection is, it is mute and inanimate. The best memories patrons take away from their experience will be of the people who made the experience “come alive.”

A docent may bring a background of expertise, or learn on the job, or a combination. You will have many opportunities to:

  • give an anecdote
  • state a fact
  • explain a concept
  • answer a question

In addition, the following qualities are helpful in developing a rapport and connection with the patrons:

  • interesting delivery or speaking style
  • humorous
  • self-effacing
  • listening

Listening and responding conversationally to audience questions and opinions gives everyone permission to open up and relax in a non-threatening atmosphere.  Feel comfortable turning over the floor for a patron’s “war story” or observation…

…but keep the flow going by continuing along to another exhibit or another topic of interest…

The 1% Rule

If you learn only 1% of the information underpinning the Museum’s vast collection, that will be adequate to inform you for your life’s work as a Museum Docent.

Convey your treasure trove of knowledge in clear, concise language.  Replace jargon with common terms.  Ask questions occasionally to engage the audience and test your communication skills:

  • “Can you guess…?”
  • “Have you seen…?”
  • “What can we compare this to?”
  • “What do you think will happen?”

Familiarization with the Collection

An easy approach to learning more about the Collection is to focus on a topic of personal interest, e.g., electrostatics, the genesis of radio, or children’s learning (or all three…)

  • Read or browse books on the subject matter
  • Listen to other “tour guides”
  • Interview the collectors
  • Ask questions

As a docent, you comprise skills and knowledge of culture, history and innovation that few other people can claim.  To convey knowledge and learning in an entertaining manner does more for the patrons’ Museum experience than anything else.  Make it personal; make it fun.  Watch the smiles.

This America

Dear Followers, Fans, Family and Friends in no particular order:

I am greatly dismayed to announce to you I have been contacted by a retired attorney in California who shall remain nameless at the moment informing me I am in violation of copyright law by reprinting certain images from the internet intended only to elucidate, educate and enlighten you, my dear readers.

Hence, I have duly removed all of the internet-derived images from my several articles in the hopes of pacifying the voracious appetite for retribution implied by this fellow’s reputation.  As they were mostly superfluous eye-candy, I doubt you will miss them…

I thought they were public domain; alternatively, if copyrighted, I thought they were available for educational purposes (mine) for one-time usage.   I apologize to you and the offended party(ies.)


Easter Memories

All right, I get it.  Rants about popular holidays are not popular.  How do I know this?  Of the 4,348 views in the 14 months since I started this blog, the two articles featuring holidays garnered the fewest hits:  22 for “Thanksgiving Memories” and 2 for “Christmas Memories.”  So, why am I writing another “exposé” about another overwhelmingly popular holiday?  Same reason:  To point up how tradition obscures original meanings.  Besides, what have I got to lose with these statistics?

The word “Easter” probably derives from “Ishtar” and “Εostre,” all pronounced the same, the latter two being two names for the same goddess worshiped in ancient times by the Babylonians and the Anglo-Saxons, respectively.  The only mention of Easter in the Bible is actually the same Greek word specifying the Jewish Passover.

Further, nowhere does Jesus or anyone give a directive to celebrate his resurrection.  Instead, he and others made a direct link between the killing of the Passover lamb of the ancient Hebrews and his death.  Jesus’ death and resurrection are not the same event.  Easter as we know it grew out of the Jewish celebration of the Passover.  Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples just before he was killed on the day of Passover.  He is referred to as “our passover.” [1]  During the meal, he passed the bread and wine to everyone and instructed them to remember him whenever they do likewise, that is, share a meal.  This is not the Catholic custom of saying “grace” or giving thanks before a meal (which Jesus did do.)  This is Jesus’ specific direction to remember him and his death every time one eats, which, like breathing, is a necessary and frequently repeated human event. [2]  One gets into the habit of thinking about right living and personal sacrifice as espoused by Jesus pretty quickly if you think about it at least three times a day.

Easter became conflated with Jesus’ resurrection as time passed and the “Christian” religion moved farther away from Judaism, from which it originated, and closer to the mainstream beliefs of the Romans and Greeks.  The 4th century ecclesiastical historian Socrates Scholasticus attributes the observance of Easter by the church to the “perpetuation of its custom, ‘just as many other customs have been established’, stating that neither Jesus nor his Apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival.” [3]    By the 4th century, the only concern was how to standardize the date for the festivities.  This was the focus of the Roman Church’s First Council of Nicaea in 325.  Emperor Constantine decreed the event to occur annually on the first day of the sun after the first full moon following the spring equinox, the time it is celebrated to this day.  Interestingly, a chronicle of the council proceedings written in the 4th century referred to Passover, not “Easter.”

So where did all the accretions to the Easter celebration originate?

As mentioned, most can be traced to ancient religious beliefs and practices long antedating Jesus and Christianity, specifically the Babylonian “mystery religion”‘ and Anglo-Saxon paganism.

The goddess-queen of Babylon, Semiramis, had a colorful life:  She married her son, Nimrod, after her husband, Cush, son of Ham, Noah’s son, died.  Nimrod was the founder and king of Babel.  After he was killed in battle, Semiramis kept his memory alive by claiming he had ascended to the sun and was now a god named “Baal,” the sun-god.

Still with me?

Semiramis held that Baal would be present on earth as a flame (as a candle, lamp or bonfire) when used in worship.

She claimed to be a goddess, immaculately conceived, descended from the moon in a giant egg at the time of the first full moon following the spring equinox.  She took the name Ishtar; as you can guess, her egg became known as “Ishtar’s egg.”

Her illegitimate son Tammuz (by sun-god Baal…) was fond of rabbits.  When he was killed in a hunting accident (by a wild pig), Ishtar/Semiramis deified him, decreed an annual forty day fast from meat and required meditation on the sacred mysteries while making a “T” sign over the heart.  In addition, sacred cakes were eaten marked with the “T,” or cross, on top.  Every year on the first day of the sun following the first full moon after the spring equinox, the fast culminated in a celebration including rabbits, eggs and feasting on pig.

Sound familiar?

Remember Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn/rebirth?  Her symbol was a rabbit that laid eggs.  “Easter fires” are also of ancient Saxon origin intended to chase away the darkness of winter and as a symbol of fertility.  “Sunrise services” pretty much speak for themselves as an ancient practice of sun-worshipers.

Obviously there are a lot more traditions of men associated with ancient spring festivals like Easter:  egg rolling, coloring eggs, baby chicks, egg hunts, fish on Friday…  The point is, none of this is prescribed as legitimate respect for or adherence to correct religious practice – unless you’re a pagan.  The Word of God is unambiguous:  “Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. “ [4]

Happy Ishtar.

1.  1 Corinthians 5:7
2.  1 Corinthians 11:24, 25
3.  Socrates, Church History, 5.22, in Schaff, Philip (13 July 2005).
4.  Mark 7:7, KJV

A Year in the Life of a Model Railroader

The Town of Here

The Town of Here

The HO model trains in this display were collected over the course of one year by a gentleman we’ll call “Gunney.”  Gunney lived in Bellingham, Washington, with his devoted wife, Violet.  He suffered from a debilitating lung disease (COPD) over the last few years of his life which severely limited his ability to move around and exert himself.  The thing that gave him his greatest pleasure and reward over the last year of his rich life was model railroading.  “It made his life count,” says Violet.

Gunney served his Country over three decades in the Korean War and Vietnam, retiring as a Sergeant in the Marine Corps. He worked as a carpenter and other professions using his agile hands and sharp mind.

As Gunney’s illness progressed, he went on disability and searched for life experiences to enjoy: He bought an ATV with the intent to go to the backwoods, find a promising stream and pan for gold; unfortunately the hike into the wilderness proved to be too taxing. Then he acquired a fishing rig; this also became too difficult to manage with his breathing problem.

In his youth, Gunney played with model trains, like so many others boys of his generation and since. Later in life he would recall his boyhood hobby as something he might want to do again, but was reluctant to spend the money. When he mentioned this to Violet, she encouraged him to take up his hobby again. Violet saw that model railroading made her husband smile, and was a perfect fit for him in this stage of his life. And so, in the last year of his life, Gunny got into model railroading with a passion.

Gunney"s Train Washing Station

Gunney’s Train Washing Station

He constructed over three dozen HO scale model building kits of every description, paying close attention to detail and setting. Violet describes her husband as eagerly heading out to his “train shack” to spend the better part of each day working on the buildings which made up his sizeable layout. He built (with the help and support of his many Veteran friends) chest-high train tables, and placed the buildings as a realistic scenic railway. Some of the buildings, like the train washing station, were scratch-built to scale by Gunney using parts and imagination.

Gunney collected roughly 80 pieces of rolling stock over the course of the year. He purchased instructional books, magazines and DVDs. He acquire “miles” of track, cork road bed, modeling tools, landscape materials and people figures to populate his village, which he christened “The Town of Here.”

As Gunney grew weaker, he became bedridden. Gunney never got a chance to lay any track before he passed away.

So, as a memorial, Violet and all his friends gathered together for a track laying ceremony: Violet laid down the first section of track; then each of his buddies laid down another section of track one at a time until the entire route through “Here” was complete.

Gunney will be long-remembered by his family, his Brothers-in-Arms, his friends and neighbors, and strangers like you and me as, in the words of his memorial, “a committed Marine, a devoted husband, a loving father, a selfless mentor and an unconditional friend.”