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Seth Zenz | Imperial College London | UK

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Mayor Bloomberg Knows How Magnets Work

As a scientist, I wholeheartedly approve of part of the sentiment behind Insane Clown Posse’s song, Miracles, which expresses the wonder of many aspects of the universe around us. It asks, for example:

[Ahem] Magnets, how do they work?

Magnets are crucial to our entire endeavor at the LHC. They accelerate the protons and keep them on the right path, and they curve particles so we can measure their momenta in the experiments’ tracking detectors. Yet I actually know very little about the materials science behind building the advanced magnets my work relies on — probably an unavoidable consequence of the specialization required for modern science, but still a shame. I had actually considered using this quote for the experimental apparatus chapter(s) of my thesis, but I rather disapprove of the lines following:

And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all [individuals of dubious moral character] lying, and getting me [upset]

I don’t disapprove because I have to put awkward euphemisms whenever they swear, but rather because, well, we aren’t lying. Every line of explanation in every textbook represents years of effort and careful verification, and we know how magnets work perfectly well. And knowing how magnets work makes them more wonderful, not less!

Anyway, the Insane Clown Posse’s question was recently repeated in a round of Twitter questions for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who replied:

Well, as you probably know, everything is made up of atoms, and atoms have electrons, usually in pairs orbiting around them, and they create mini-magnetic fields. But the two electrons spin in orbit, as pairs, spin in opposite directions. They cancel out each other . . . But magnetic materials aren’t in pairs. So the spins don’t cancel out each other. And if there’s enough of them, it creates a magnetic field.

He left out a few details, of course, but that’s a good conceptual start. So, kudos to Mayor Bloomberg, for knowing how magnets work and taking the time to explain it a bit. The world is full of miracles, but with hard work we can understand a lot of them: that’s what being a scientist is all about.

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