The question How do Magnets Work? is one that has yet to be fully answered even today. That’s right, nobody quite knows the answer.
There are two sides to the simple question though, and one we can answer. That is, what a magnet actually does. People have known about them for thousands of years. What we still don’t know is exactly Why it works. Although in the past one hundred years we have gotten a lot closer to understanding that as well.
So firstly, What do Magnets Do?
Well every single magnet has two ‘poles’. A north pole and a south pole. Just like our planet Earth. The north magnetic pole will repel other northern poles with an invisible force. Conversely, it will also attract a southern pole, pulling and sticking them together with that same invisible force. You’ll remember playing with the red blue magnets in elementary school and learning that much for yourself.
Maybe you’ll also remember that magnets can actually be used to make more magnets? If you take a magnetised piece of metal and run it multiple times in the same direction over a fork or a needle, you can make that object into a magnet too. This isn’t just a party trick either. That needle on a piece of cotton in water will align with the Earth’s magnetic field and point north. A homemade compass.
So next, Why on earth Do Magnets Work?
Here’s where things get a little tricky. About 200 years ago a man named James Clerk Maxwell proved to the world that magnets work because of the electrons in the metal of a magnet. He showed that magnetism and electricity were two sides of the same coin. Electromagnetism was born.
As such electricity can be used to make magnets and the reverse is also true, magnets can be used to make electricity. All you need to do is put a wire in a magnetic field and move the magnet for electricity to be created.
But why do they work? I know its not a short question to answer. Remember when we learnt that if you run a magnet multiple times over a needle you can make that needle into a magnet? This is because we are aligning all of the electrons in the same direction. Every electron always exerts force, but normally they all just exert it randomly in different directions.
Creating a magnet gives the electrons focus. When they are all facing the same way they create a magnetic field capable of pulling and pushing without physical contact. This isn’t a mystery, but there is still one big one left.
People still don’t know exactly what a magnetic field is, or how it works. Some physicists claim it is a field of energy, others that electrons emit tiny quantum level particles that we cannot detect. For the curious out there, there are even more questions unanswered about magnets, like why do they have a north and a south pole in the first place? So if you have to ask ‘Hey, how Do magnets work?’ Don’t feel bad that you dont already know, nobody else does either.