Magic Magnets

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What You Do:

Learn about electrons in magnetic materials.

Explore properties of magnets and magnetic fields.

Recommended Lead-Up Lesson: Sticky Static, Circular Circuits

What You Need:


Bar Magnets ( 2 per group )

Ring Magnets ( 2 per group )

Paper Clip ( 1 per group )

String ( 1’ per group )

Masking Tape ( 1 roll per group )

Magic Magnets Presentation ( 1 per class )

Magic Magnets Worksheet ( 1 per student )

What’s Happening:

Magnetism, at its root, arises from two sources:

  • Electric currents or more generally, moving electric charges create magnetic fields (see Maxwell’s Equations).
  • Many particles have nonzero “intrinsic” (or “spin”) magnetic moments. Just as each particle, by its nature, has a certain mass and charge, each has a certain magnetic moment, possibly zero.

It was found hundreds of years ago that certain materials have a tendency to orient in a particular direction. For example ancient people knew that “lodestones,” when suspended from a string and allowed to freely rotate, come to rest horizontally in the North-South direction. Ancient Mariners used lodestones for navigational purposes.

In magnetic materials, sources of magnetization are the electrons’ orbital angular motion around the nucleus, and the electrons’ intrinsic magnetic moment (see electron magnetic dipole moment). The other sources of magnetism are the nuclear magnetic moments of the nuclei in the material which 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 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 (both orbital and intrinsic) cancel out. This is due, to some extent, to electrons combining into pairs with opposite intrinsic magnetic moments as a result of the Pauli exclusion principle (see electron configuration), or combining into filled subshells with zero net orbital motion. In both cases, the electron arrangement is so as to exactly cancel the magnetic moments from each electron. Moreover, even when the electron configuration is such that there are unpaired electrons and/or non-filled subshells, it is often the case that the various electrons in the solid will contribute magnetic moments that point in different, random directions, so that the material will not be magnetic.

However, 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.

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