Magnetism is a class of physical phenomena that includes forces exerted by magnets on other magnets. It has its origin in electric currents and the fundamental magnetic moments of elementary particles. These give rise to a magnetic field that acts on other currents and moments.

All materials are influenced to some extent by a magnetic field. The strongest effect is on permanent magnets, which have persistent magnetic moments caused by ferromagnetism. Most materials do not have permanent moments. Some are attracted to a magnetic field (paramagnetism); others are repulsed by a magnetic field (diamagnetism); others have a much more complex relationship with an applied magnetic field (spin glass behavior and antiferromagnetism).

Substances that are negligibly affected by magnetic fields are known as non-magnetic substances. They include copper, aluminium, gases, and plastic. Pure oxygen exhibits magnetic properties when cooled to a liquid state.

The magnetic state (or phase) of a material depends on temperature (and other variables such as pressure and the applied magnetic field) so that a material may exhibit more than one form of magnetism depending on its temperature, etc.

History of electromagnetism

Aristotle attributed the first of what could be called a scientific discussion on magnetism to Thales of Miletus, who lived from about 625 BC to about 545 BC. Around the same time, the Indian surgeon, Sushruta, was the first known to make use of the magnet for surgical purposes. There is some evidence that the first use of magnetic materials for its properties predates this, J. B. Carlson suggests that the Olmec might have used hematite as a magnet earlier than 1000BC.

In China, the earliest literary reference to magnetism lies in a 4th-century BC book named after its author, The Master of Demon Valley (鬼谷子): “The lodestone makes iron come or it attracts it.”The earliest mention of the attraction of a needle appears in a work composed between AD 20 and 100 (Louen-heng): “A lodestone attracts a needle.” The Chinese scientist Shen Kuo (1031–1095) was the first person to write of the magnetic needle compass and that it improved the accuracy of navigation by employing the astronomical concept of true north (Dream Pool Essays, AD 1088), and by the 12th century the Chinese were known to use the lodestone compass for navigation. They sculpted a directional spoon from lodestone in such a way that the handle of the spoon always pointed south.

Alexander Neckam, by 1187, was the first in Europe to describe the compass and its use for navigation. In 1269, Peter Peregrinus de Maricourt wrote the Epistola de magnete, the first extant treatise describing the properties of magnets. In 1282, the properties of magnets and the dry compass were discussed by Al-Ashraf, a Yemeni physicist, astronomer, and geographer.[7]
Michael Faraday, 1842

In 1600, William Gilbert published his De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on the Great Magnet the Earth). In this work he describes many of his experiments with his model earth called the terrella. From his experiments, he concluded that the Earth was itself magnetic and that this was the reason compasses pointed north (previously, some believed that it was the pole star (Polaris) or a large magnetic island on the north pole that attracted the compass).

An understanding of the relationship between electricity and magnetism began in 1819 with work by Hans Christian Oersted, a professor at the University of Copenhagen, who discovered more or less by accident that an electric current could influence a compass needle. This landmark experiment is known as Oersted’s Experiment.

Several other experiments followed, with André-Marie Ampère, who in 1820 discovered that the magnetic field circulating in a closed-path was related to the current flowing through the perimeter of the path; Carl Friedrich Gauss; Jean-Baptiste Biot and Félix Savart, both of which in 1820 came up with the Biot–Savart Law giving an equation for the magnetic field from a current-carrying wire; Michael Faraday, who in 1831 found that a time-varying magnetic flux through a loop of wire induced a voltage, and others finding further links between magnetism and electricity. James Clerk Maxwell synthesized and expanded these insights into Maxwell’s equations, unifying electricity, magnetism, and optics into the field of electromagnetism. In 1905, Einstein used these laws in motivating his theory of special relativity, requiring that the laws held true in all inertial reference frames.

Electromagnetism has continued to develop into the 21st century, being incorporated into the more fundamental theories of gauge theory, quantum electrodynamics, electroweak theory, and finally the standard model.

Sources of magnetism

Magnetism, at its root, arises from two sources:

  1. Electric current (see electron magnetic dipole moment).
  2. Nuclear magnetic moments of atomic nuclei. These moments are typically thousands of times smaller than the electrons’ magnetic moments, so they are negligible in the context of the magnetization of materials. Nuclear magnetic moments are very important in other contexts, particularly in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Ordinarily, the enormous number of electrons in a material are arranged such that their magnetic moments cancel out. Sometimes—either spontaneously, or owing to an applied external magnetic field—each of the electron magnetic moments will be, on average, lined up. Then the material can produce a net total magnetic field, which can potentially be quite strong.

The magnetic behavior of a material depends on its structure, particularly its electron configuration, for the reasons mentioned above, and also on the temperature. At high temperatures, random thermal motion makes it more difficult for the electrons to maintain alignment.

Magnetism, electricity, and special relativity

Electricity and magnetism are fundamentally interlinked. Both magnetism lacking electricity, and electricity without magnetism, are inconsistent with special relativity, due to such effects as length contraction, time dilation, and the fact that the magnetic force is velocity-dependent. However, when both electricity and magnetism are taken into account, the resulting theory (electromagnetism) is fully consistent with special relativity.

In particular, a phenomenon that appears purely electric to one observer may be purely magnetic to another, or more generally the relative contributions of electricity and magnetism are dependent on the frame of reference. Thus, special relativity “mixes” electricity and magnetism into a single, inseparable phenomenon called electromagnetism, analogous to how relativity “mixes” space and time into spacetime.

Magnetic dipoles

A very common source of magnetic field shown in nature is a dipole, with a “South pole” and a “North pole”, terms dating back to the use of magnets as compasses, interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field to indicate North and South on the globe. Since opposite ends of magnets are attracted, the north pole of a magnet is attracted to the south pole of another magnet. The Earth’s North Magnetic Pole (currently in the Arctic Ocean, north of Canada) is physically a south pole, as it attracts the north pole of a compass.

A magnetic field contains energy, and physical systems move toward configurations with lower energy. When diamagnetic material is placed in a magnetic field, a magnetic dipole tends to align itself in opposed polarity to that field, thereby lowering the net field strength.

Magnetic monopoles

Even though a magnet is said to have a north pole and a south pole, these two poles cannot be separated from each other. A monopole—if such a thing exists—would be a new and fundamentally different kind of magnetic object. It would act as an isolated north pole, not attached to a south pole, or vice versa. Monopoles would carry “magnetic charge” analogous to electric charge. Despite systematic searches since 1931, as of 2010, they have never been observed, and could very well not exist.



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2 thoughts on “Magnetism

  1. sallyember March 18, 2014 at 2:10 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Sally Ember, Ed.D. and commented:
    People, relationships, attraction, #magnetism: so many connections, micro to macro.

    • thesevenminds March 18, 2014 at 3:43 pm

      Thank you for the reblog. It is indeed about connections on all levels.

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