magnetism, force of attraction or repulsion between various substances, especially those made of iron and certain other metals; ultimately it is due to the motion of electric charges.
Any object that exhibits magnetic properties is called a magnet. Every magnet has two points, or poles, where most of its strength is concentrated; these are designated as a north-seeking pole, or north pole, and a south-seeking pole, or south pole, because a suspended magnet tends to orient itself along a north-south line. Since a magnet has two poles, it is sometimes called a magnetic dipole, being analogous to an electric dipole, composed of two opposite charges. The like poles of different magnets repel each other, and the unlike poles attract each other.
One remarkable property of magnets is that whenever a magnet is broken, a north pole will appear at one of the broken faces and a south pole at the other, such that each piece has its own north and south poles. It is impossible to isolate a single magnetic pole, regardless of how many times a magnet is broken or how small the fragments become. (The theoretical question as to the possible existence in any state of a single magnetic pole, called a monopole, is still considered open by physicists; experiments to date have failed to detect one.)
From his study of magnetism, C. A. Coulomb in the 18th cent. found that the magnetic forces between two poles followed an inverse-square law of the same form as that describing the forces between electric charges. The law states that the force of attraction or repulsion between two magnetic poles is directly proportional to the product of the strengths of the poles and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
As with electric charges, the effect of this magnetic force acting at a distance is expressed in terms of a field of force. A magnetic pole sets up a field in the space around it that exerts a force on magnetic materials. The field can be visualized in terms of lines of induction (similar to the lines of force of an electric field). These imaginary lines indicate the direction of the field in a given region. By convention they originate at the north pole of a magnet and form loops that end at the south pole either of the same magnet or of some other nearby magnet (see also flux, magnetic). The lines are spaced so that the number per unit area is proportional to the field strength in a given area. Thus, the lines converge near the poles, where the field is strong, and spread out as their distance from the poles increases.
A picture of these lines of induction can be made by sprinkling iron filings on a piece of paper placed over a magnet. The individual pieces of iron become magnetized by entering a magnetic field, i.e., they act like tiny magnets, lining themselves up along the lines of induction. By using variously shaped magnets and various combinations of more than one magnet, representations of the field in these different situations can be obtained.
The term magnetism is derived from Magnesia, the name of a region in Asia Minor where lodestone, a naturally magnetic iron ore, was found in ancient times. Iron is not the only material that is easily magnetized when placed in a magnetic field; others include nickel and cobalt. Carbon steel was long the material commonly used for permanent magnets, but more recently other materials have been developed that are much more efficient as permanent magnets, including certain ferroceramics and Alnico, an alloy containing iron, aluminum, nickel, cobalt, and copper.
Materials that respond strongly to a magnetic field are called ferromagnetic [Lat. ferrum = iron]. The ability of a material to be magnetized or to strengthen the magnetic field in its vicinity is expressed by its magnetic permeability. Ferromagnetic materials have permeabilities of as much as 1,000 or more times that of free space (a vacuum). A number of materials are very weakly attracted by a magnetic field, having permeabilities slightly greater than that of free space; these materials are called paramagnetic. A few materials, such as bismuth and antimony, are repelled by a magnetic field, having permeabilities less than that of free space; these materials are called diamagnetic.
The electrical basis for the magnetic properties of matter has been verified down to the atomic level. Because the electron has both an electric charge and a spin, it can be called a charge in motion. This charge in motion gives rise to a tiny magnetic field. In the case of many atoms, all the electrons are paired within energy levels, according to the exclusion principle, so that the electrons in each pair have opposite (antiparallel) spins and their magnetic fields cancel. In some atoms, however, there are more electrons with spins in one direction than in the other, resulting in a net magnetic field for the atom as a whole; this situation exists in a paramagnetic substance. If such a material is placed in an external field, e.g., the field created by an electromagnet, the individual atoms will tend to align their fields with the external one. The alignment will not be complete, due to the disruptive effect of thermal vibrations. Because of this, a paramagnetic substance is only weakly attracted by a magnet.
In a ferromagnetic substance, there are also more electrons with spins in one direction than in the other. The individual magnetic fields of the atoms in a given region tend to line up in the same direction, so that they reinforce one another. Such a region is called a domain. In an unmagnetized sample, the domains are of different sizes and have different orientations. When an external magnetic field is applied, domains whose orientations are in the same general direction as the external field will grow at the expense of domains with other orientations. When the domains in all other directions have vanished, the remaining domains are rotated so that their direction is exactly the same as that of the external field. After this rotation is complete, no further magnetization can take place, no matter how strong the external field; a saturation point is said to have been reached. If the external field is then reduced to zero, it is found that the sample still retains some of its magnetism; this is known as hysteresis.
The connections between magnetism and electricity were discovered in the early part of the 19th cent. In 1820 H. C. Oersted found that a wire carrying an electrical current deflects the needle of a magnetic compass because a magnetic field is created by the moving electric charges constituting the current. It was found that the lines of induction of the magnetic field surrounding the wire (or any other conductor) are circular. If the wire is bent into a coil, called a solenoid, the magnetic fields of the individual loops combine to produce a strong field through the core of the coil. This field can be increased manyfold by inserting a piece of soft iron or other ferromagnetic material into the core; the resulting arrangement constitutes an electromagnet.
Following Oersted's discovery the various magnetic effects of an electric current were extensively investigated by J. B. Biot, Félix Savart, and A. M. Ampère. Ampère showed in 1825 that not only does a current-carrying conductor exert a force on a magnet but magnets also exert forces on current-carrying conductors. In 1831 Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry independently discovered that it is possible to produce a current in a conductor by changing the magnetic field about it. The discovery of this effect, called electromagnetic induction, together with the discovery that an electric current produces a magnetic field, laid the foundation for the modern age of electricity. Both the electric generator, which makes electricity widely available, and the electric motor, which converts electricity to useful mechanical work, are based on these effects.
Another relationship between electricity and magnetism is that a regularly changing electric current in a conductor will create a changing magnetic field in the space about the conductor, which in turn gives rise to a changing electrical field. In this way regularly oscillating electric and magnetic fields can generate each other. These fields can be visualized as a single wave that is propagating through space. The formal theory underlying this electromagnetic radiation was developed by James Clerk Maxwell in the middle of the 19th cent. Maxwell showed that the speed of propagation of electromagnetic radiation is identical with that of light, thus revealing that light is intimately connected with electricity and magnetism.
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