F***ing magnets, how do they work?

August 17th, 2010
By Dave Mosher

One curse of having a brain comprised of 20ish billion neurons (and 7,000 times as many synaptic connections*) is that music can get seriously stuck in it.

Awful, terrible, mind-numbingly stupid music.

Case in point, the Insane Clown Posse’s tune “Miracles”:

If you haven’t listened to this addictive form of brain corrosion closely, here’s a sample of the lyrics:

The sun and the moon, and even Mars
The Milky Way and fucking shooting stars
UFOs, a river flows
Plant a little seed and nature grows
Niagara falls and the pyramids
Everything you believed in as kids
Fucking rainbows after it rains
There’s enough miracles here to blow your brains

It gets better. Better being worse, of course.

About halfway through, ICP tells its juggalo followers that magnets are magical and all scientists are liars:

Water, fire, air and dirt
Fucking magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed

Correction: ICP asks how magnets work.

Awesome! I like questions — that’s how we get our best learnin’ on. So in that spirit, I encourage ICP to look up any one of the great online articles about how magnets and magnetism work.

But if these clowns want the short version, here’s my humble attempt:

We have to start at the beginning to understand magnetism. By the beginning, of course, I mean the beginning — about 13.7 billion years ago.

That’s when crazy soup of energy popped into existence — something a-hole scientists call the Big Bang. This energy soup cooled down to form matter, and the type of “ordinary” matter we can relate to came imbued with mass and charge. That is, positively charged protons, negatively charged electrons and zero-charge particles called neutrons.

Protons and neutrons tend to hang out at the center of atoms, in a dense wad called the nucleus. Electrons prefer zooming around that nucleus. For each proton in an atom, there’s one electron orbiting** above the nucleus. Add more protons to an atom, and you must add more electrons… but those electrons don’t just cram into the same spot — they have a super-specific way of crowding around the nucleus, mostly because of a property called spin.

Spin is weird. You might think of it as something that compels electrons to twirl like ballerinas, but it’s so weird that even this analogy stinks. So forget the ballerina thing, and in fact ignore your existing notions of how the world works for a moment and accept this: Spin gives electrons a sort of perpetual inner momentum.

Now when something with a charge (such as an electron) moves, it creates a magnetic field. Ever run electricity through a wire? Stick a compass up to it. Presto, electromagnetism makes the compass go wacky. Anyway: Because of the electron’s inner motion (spin) and tendency to zoom around a nucleus, they act like miniature magnets — i.e. they each have a north and south magnetic pole. This electron spin is ultimately what makes stuff magnetic.

Bar magnet's effect on compassesIn matter such as skin, wood, cloth, glass, and so on, electrons stack up around atomic nuclei in such a way that electrons’ collective magnetism is canceled out — and this makes most stuff non-magnetic***. Metals are different, though. Especially iron. The electrons in iron atoms don’t fully cancel each other out. Instead, a few electrons line up together as a “domain,” making each atom magnetic! Yet in your average lump of iron, the atoms are arranged haphazardly. So they, too, cancel one another out.

Bummer.

But solid iron is pretty damn susceptible to magnetic fields; even a modest field can “grab” the iron atoms’ domains and line them up. This is why if you rub a magnet in one direction over and over and over against a needle, paperclip or really anything containing iron crystals, it will turn into a magnet. For a little while, anyway, as heating up a metal jiggles atoms and those magnetic domains back into chaos. (There are ways around that, of course.)

So that’s how magnetism works. Electrons act like little magnets, and when properly lined up they can work together to emanate a formidable magnetic field. As with all things in life, though, it’s not that simple. For one, there are a crapload of types of magnetism — we really only focused on ferromagnetism (ferrum = latin for iron). That and I left a few things out of the picture… small details such as the standard model, most of quantum theory and so on. But hopefully you get the gist.

ICP: Because scientists figured this out over the centuries, engineers can:

  • build the microphones that recorded your voices and instruments
  • design memory storage to hold your audio and video data
  • create a means to transmit that information to your juggalos
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Moral of the story for everyone else: Never take at face-value any promulgations about science, or scientists, from clowns. Especially insane ones with a penchant for promoting magical thinking. Furthermore, clowns are scary.

Photo courtesy of Dayna Mason (daynoir)/Flickr

* Citation: Do we have brain to spare? By David A. Drachman. Neurology, June 28, 2005.
** Actually, electrons don’t orbit. Quantum weirdness makes them just… exist, probabilistically, in certain areas around the atomic nucleus.
*** Caveat: under ordinary conditions — these are not ordinary conditions.

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