29 Introduction

Organizing Principle for this Unit

A Venn-diagram showing the different sciences

Physics sees beauty in simplicity. Meanwhile biology sees beauty in complexity.
– I heard this somewhere, but I cannot find the source

I think this quote sums things up nicely. In biology, we look with wonder at the huge diversity of life on Earth and all the solutions evolution has developed over the eons. In physics, as I hope this course has demonstrated, we like to try to explain as many different phenomena with the smallest number of ideas. I feel that this is summarized nicely in the video below:



Unlike prior units, which had an explicit connection to your other courses we were exploring, this unit is about really all about physics’ idea of beauty in simplicity. In this unit, we will bring together all of the different ideas that we have talked about over the duration of this course: light, electrons, charge, wave-particle duality, electric field, and potential into a beautiful whole showing that everything is connected to everything else!

Introduction to Magnetism

Figure 1. The magnificent spectacle of the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights, glows in the northern sky above Bear Lake near Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Shaped by the Earth’s magnetic field, this light is produced by radiation spewed from solar storms. (credit: Senior Airman Joshua Strang, via Flickr)

One evening, an Alaskan sticks a note to his refrigerator with a small magnet. Through the kitchen window, the Aurora Borealis glows in the night sky. This grand spectacle is shaped by the same force that holds the note to the refrigerator.

People have been aware of magnets and magnetism for thousands of years. The earliest records date to well before the time of Christ, particularly in a region of Asia Minor called Magnesia (the name of this region is the source of words like magnetic). Magnetic rocks found in Magnesia, which is now part of western Turkey, stimulated interest during ancient times. A practical application for magnets was found later, when they were employed as navigational compasses. The use of magnets in compasses resulted not only in improved long-distance sailing, but also in the names of “north” and “south” being given to the two types of magnetic poles.

Today magnetism plays many important roles in our lives. Physicists’ understanding of magnetism has enabled the development of technologies that affect our everyday lives. The iPod in your purse or backpack, for example, wouldn’t have been possible without the applications of magnetism and electricity on a small scale.

The discovery that weak changes in a magnetic field in a thin film of iron and chromium could bring about much larger changes in electrical resistance was one of the first large successes of nanotechnology. The 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics went to Albert Fert from France and Peter Grunberg from Germany for this discovery of giant magnetoresistance and its applications to computer memory.

All electric motors, with uses as diverse as powering refrigerators, starting cars, and moving elevators, contain magnets. Generators, whether producing hydroelectric power or running bicycle lights, use magnetic fields. Recycling facilities employ magnets to separate iron from other refuse. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually on magnetic containment of fusion as a future energy source. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has become an important diagnostic tool in the field of medicine, and the use of magnetism to explore brain activity is a subject of contemporary research and development. The list of applications also includes computer hard drives, tape recording, detection of inhaled asbestos, and levitation of high-speed trains. Magnetism is used to explain atomic energy levels, cosmic rays, and charged particles trapped in the Van Allen belts. Once again, we will find all these disparate phenomena are linked by a small number of underlying physical principles.

Figure 2. Engineering of technology like iPods would not be possible without a deep understanding magnetism. (credit: Jesse! S?, Flickr)


Derived from Magnets by OpenStax

Figure 1. Magnets come in various shapes, sizes, and strengths. All have both a north pole and a south pole. There is never an isolated pole (a monopole).

All magnets attract iron, such as that in a refrigerator door. However, magnets may attract or repel other magnets. Experimentation shows that all magnets have two poles. If freely suspended, one pole will point toward the north. The two poles are thus named the north magnetic pole and the south magnetic pole (or more properly, north-seeking and south-seeking poles, for the attractions in those directions).


Universal Characteristics of Magnets and Magnetic Poles

It is a universal characteristic of all magnets that like poles repel and unlike poles attract. (Note the similarity with electrostatics: unlike charges attract and like charges repel.)

Further experimentation shows that it is impossible to separate north and south poles in the manner that + and − charges can be separated.

Figure 2. One end of a bar magnet is suspended from a thread that points toward north. The magnet’s two poles are labeled N and S for north-seeking and south-seeking poles, respectively.


Misconception Alert: Earth’s Geographic North Pole Hides an S

The Earth acts like a very large bar magnet with its south-seeking pole near the geographic North Pole. That is why the north pole of your compass is attracted toward the geographic north pole of the Earth—because the magnetic pole that is near the geographic North Pole is actually a south magnetic pole! Confusion arises because the geographic term “North Pole” has come to be used (incorrectly) for the magnetic pole that is near the North Pole. Thus, “North magnetic pole” is actually a misnomer—it should be called the South magnetic pole.

Figure 3. Unlike poles attract, whereas like poles repel.
Figure 4. North and south poles always occur in pairs. Attempts to separate them result in more pairs of poles. If we continue to split the magnet, we will eventually get down to an iron atom with a north pole and a south pole—these, too, cannot be separated.

The fact that magnetic poles always occur in pairs of north and south is true from the very large scale—for example, sunspots always occur in pairs that are north and south magnetic poles—all the way down to the very small scale. Magnetic atoms have both a north pole and a south pole, as do many types of subatomic particles, such as electrons, protons, and neutrons.

Making Connections: Take-Home Experiment – Refrigerator Magnets

We know that like magnetic poles repel and unlike poles attract. See if you can show this for two refrigerator magnets. Will the magnets stick if you turn them over? Why do they stick to the door anyway? What can you say about the magnetic properties of the door next to the magnet? Do refrigerator magnets stick to metal or plastic spoons? Do they stick to all types of metal?

Section Summary

  • Magnetism is a subject that includes the properties of magnets, the effect of the magnetic force on moving charges and currents, and the creation of magnetic fields by currents.
  • There are two types of magnetic poles, called the north magnetic pole and south magnetic pole.
  • North magnetic poles are those that are attracted toward the Earth’s geographic north pole.
  • Like poles repel and unlike poles attract.
  • Magnetic poles always occur in pairs of north and south—it is not possible to isolate north and south poles.

Sources of Magnetism

Derived from Ferromagnets and Electromagnets by OpenStax


Only certain materials, such as iron, cobalt, nickel, and gadolinium, exhibit strong magnetic effects. Such materials are called ferromagnetic, after the Latin word for iron, ferrum. A group of materials made from the alloys of the rare earth elements are also used as strong and permanent magnets; a popular one is neodymium. Other materials exhibit weak magnetic effects, which are detectable only with sensitive instruments. Not only do ferromagnetic materials respond strongly to magnets (the way iron is attracted to magnets), they can also be magnetized themselves—that is, they can be induced to be magnetic or made into permanent magnets.

Figure 1. An unmagnetized piece of iron is placed between two magnets, heated, and then cooled, or simply tapped when cold. The iron becomes a permanent magnet with the poles aligned as shown: its south pole is adjacent to the north pole of the original magnet, and its north pole is adjacent to the south pole of the original magnet. Note that there are attractive forces between the magnets.

When a magnet is brought near a previously unmagnetized ferromagnetic material, it causes local magnetization of the material with unlike poles closest, as in Figure 1. (This results in the attraction of the previously unmagnetized material to the magnet.) What happens on a microscopic scale is illustrated in Figure 2. The regions within the material called domains act like small bar magnets. Within domains, the poles of individual atoms are aligned. Each atom acts like a tiny bar magnet. Domains are small and randomly oriented in an unmagnetized ferromagnetic object. In response to an external magnetic field, the domains may grow to millimeter size, aligning themselves as shown in Figure 2(b). This induced magnetization can be made permanent if the material is heated and then cooled, or simply tapped in the presence of other magnets.

Figure 2. (a) An unmagnetized piece of iron (or other ferromagnetic material) has randomly oriented domains. (b) When magnetized by an external field, the domains show greater alignment, and some grow at the expense of others. Individual atoms are aligned within domains; each atom acts like a tiny bar magnet.

Conversely, a permanent magnet can be demagnetized by hard blows or by heating it in the absence of another magnet. Increased thermal motion at higher temperature can disrupt and randomize the orientation and the size of the domains. There is a well-defined temperature for ferromagnetic materials, which is called the Curie temperature, above which they cannot be magnetized. The Curie temperature for iron is 770ºC which is well above room temperature. There are several elements and alloys that have Curie temperatures much lower than room temperature and are ferromagnetic only below those temperatures.


Early in the 19th century, it was discovered that electrical currents cause magnetic effects. The first significant observation was by the Danish scientist Hans Christian Oersted (1777–1851), who found that a compass needle was deflected by a current-carrying wire. This was the first significant evidence that the movement of charges had any connection with magnets. Electromagnetism is the use of electric current to make magnets. These temporarily induced magnets are called electromagnets. Electromagnets are employed for everything from a wrecking yard crane that lifts scrapped cars to controlling the beam of a 90-km-circumference particle accelerator to the magnets in medical imaging machines (See Figure 3).

Figure 4. Instrument for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The device uses a superconducting cylindrical coil for the main magnetic field. The patient goes into this “tunnel” on the gurney. (credit: Bill McChesney, Flickr)

Figure 4 shows that the response of iron filings to a current-carrying coil and to a permanent bar magnet. The patterns are similar. In fact, electromagnets and ferromagnets have the same basic characteristics—for example, they have north and south poles that cannot be separated and for which like poles repel and unlike poles attract.

Figure 4. Iron filings near (a) a current-carrying coil and (b) a magnet act like tiny compass needles, showing the shape of their fields. Their response to a current-carrying coil and a permanent magnet is seen to be very similar, especially near the ends of the coil and the magnet.

Combining a ferromagnet with an electromagnet can produce particularly strong magnetic effects. (See Figure.) Whenever strong magnetic effects are needed, such as lifting scrap metal, or in particle accelerators, electromagnets are enhanced by ferromagnetic materials. Limits to how strong the magnets can be made are imposed by coil resistance (it will overheat and melt at sufficiently high current), and so superconducting magnets may be employed. These are still limited, because superconducting properties are destroyed by too great a magnetic field.

Figure 5. An electromagnet with a ferromagnetic core can produce very strong magnetic effects. Alignment of domains in the core produces a magnet, the poles of which are aligned with the electromagnet.

Figure 6 shows a few uses of combinations of electromagnets and ferromagnets. Ferromagnetic materials can act as memory devices, because the orientation of the magnetic fields of small domains can be reversed or erased. Magnetic information storage on videotapes and computer hard drives are among the most common applications. This property is vital in our digital world.

Figure 6. An electromagnet induces regions of permanent magnetism on a floppy disk coated with a ferromagnetic material. The information stored here is digital (a region is either magnetic or not); in other applications, it can be analog (with a varying strength), such as on audiotapes.

Current: The Source of All Magnetism

Instructor’s Note


The fact that current is the source of all magnetism is the IMPORTANT POINT- all magnetic fields are ultimately created by moving charges.

An electromagnet creates magnetism with an electric current. In later sections we explore this more quantitatively, finding the strength and direction of magnetic fields created by various currents. But what about ferromagnets? Figure 7 shows models of how electric currents create magnetism at the submicroscopic level. (Note that we cannot directly observe the paths of individual electrons about atoms, and so a model or visual image, consistent with all direct observations, is made. We can directly observe the electron’s orbital angular momentum, its spin momentum, and subsequent magnetic moments, all of which are explained with electric-current-creating subatomic magnetism.) Currents, including those associated with other submicroscopic particles like protons, allow us to explain ferromagnetism and all other magnetic effects. Ferromagnetism, for example, results from an internal cooperative alignment of electron spins, possible in some materials but not in others.

Crucial to the statement that electric current is the source of all magnetism is the fact that it is impossible to separate north and south magnetic poles. (This is far different from the case of positive and negative charges, which are easily separated.) A current loop always produces a magnetic dipole—that is, a magnetic field that acts like a north pole and south pole pair. Since isolated north and south magnetic poles, called magnetic monopoles, are not observed, currents are used to explain all magnetic effects. If magnetic monopoles did exist, then we would have to modify this underlying connection that all magnetism is due to electrical current. There is no known reason that magnetic monopoles should not exist—they are simply never observed—and so searches at the sub-nuclear level continue. If they do not exist, we would like to find out why not. If they do exist, we would like to see evidence of them.

Electric Currents and Magnetism

Electric current is the source of all magnetism.



Figure 7. (a) In the planetary model of the atom, an electron orbits a nucleus, forming a closed-current loop and producing a magnetic field with a north pole and a south pole. (b) Electrons have spin and can be crudely pictured as rotating charge, forming a current that produces a magnetic field with a north pole and a south pole. Neither the planetary model nor the image of a spinning electron is completely consistent with modern physics. However, they do provide a useful way of understanding phenomena.

Section Summary

  • Magnetic poles always occur in pairs of north and south—it is not possible to isolate north and south poles.
  • All magnetism is created by electric current.
  • Ferromagnetic materials, such as iron, are those that exhibit strong magnetic effects.
  • The atoms in ferromagnetic materials act like small magnets (due to currents within the atoms) and can be aligned, usually in millimeter-sized regions called domains.
  • Domains can grow and align on a larger scale, producing permanent magnets. Such a material is magnetized, or induced to be magnetic.
  • Above a material’s Curie temperature, thermal agitation destroys the alignment of atoms, and ferromagnetism disappears.
  • Electromagnets employ electric currents to make magnetic fields, often aided by induced fields in ferromagnetic materials.



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Physics 132: What is an Electron? What is Light? by Roger Hinrichs, Paul Peter Urone, Paul Flowers, Edward J. Neth, William R. Robinson, Klaus Theopold, Richard Langley, Julianne Zedalis, John Eggebrecht, and E.F. Redish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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