292: Magnets

292: Magnets

Brain Junk
Brain Junk
292: Magnets

First off, we recorded on Zoom ( I KNOW it’s 🙄). Sorry about the sound quality. Trace is working on a new platform for us. But okay, magnets! You asked & we are here to demystify those wacky magnets you’ve got stuck all over your fridge.

Show notes:

US Energy Information Administration magnetism explanation with diagrams

Magnets and repelling sharks!

YouTube sharks vs magnets!

Jenny Lawson and her experience with transcranial magnetic stimulation

More info on the science of magnets and your brain from the Mayo Clinic

Frontiers in Zoology: Dogs and pooping on the north south axis…maybe

NASA archive on the history of magnetism

Advanced Functional Materials paper on magnets used to clean oil spills

Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) collab on Another paper on magnets and oil


[00:00:03] Speaker A: Welcome to Brain junk. I’m Amy Barton.

[00:00:05] Speaker B: And I’m Trace Kerr. And today is everything you never knew you wanted to know about how magnets work.

[00:00:13] Speaker A: Magnets, how they work.

[00:00:15] Speaker B: My eldest, Anson, his friend Rand, we were talking and he’s like, I’ve listened to the podcast and I want to know, how do magnets work?

[00:00:22] Speaker A: It does the long pause here. Usually I’ve got banter, there’s a gear grind here. I’m like, I feel like I’ve heard before and there’s repelling and attracting, but no, I’m just going to go along for the ride with this one.

[00:00:37] Speaker B: Makes you feel any better. So I googled magnets how, and it was how do magnets get their energy? How does a magnet attract metal? And my favorite, why do magnets exist?

[00:00:52] Speaker A: Feel like they’re created too, right?

[00:00:54] Speaker B: I went straight to the US Energy information Administration. Didn’t know we had it, but we do same. Let’s go back to like 8th and 7th grade. We’re heading back to middle school for just a second. So in the middle of an atom, you’ve got your nucleus and electrons are spinning around it and they’re going randomly. It’s like a rave, there’s music playing, they’re going wherever they want to go. And as they spin, each of them is creating a little tiny magnetic field. But because they’re all going in random directions, they kind of cancel each other out. Okay, but when you have a magnet, all the atoms have joined into molecules. The molecules make a thing and all of their electrons are spinning in the same direction. So it’s like a line dance instead of a mosh pit.

[00:01:39] Speaker A: Yes.

Thank you.

[00:01:42] Speaker B: Okay, and when they’re all going in the same direction, it creates a magnetic field and it flows from one end to the other. There’s a lot of drawings where they’ll have like a rectangle and one end has an n on it and one end has an s on it, north and south, they just kind of say that they’re not necessarily pointing north and south at the time, but the magnet itself has a north and a south end.

[00:02:04] Speaker A: It’s got poles. Okay.

[00:02:05] Speaker B: And they’ll have these arching fields that kind of go around it, like in little half circles. There’ll be stuff in the show notes for you to take a look at and you’ll be like, oh, I remember seeing that on a whiteboard or a smartboard I saw.

[00:02:18] Speaker A: So trace, it was chalkboards. Let’s be real.

[00:02:21] Speaker B: It was an overhead projector, but I didn’t want to say that. Because people would say, what the heck is that?

[00:02:27] Speaker A: Look it up, kids.

[00:02:29] Speaker B: Yeah. So cool. So, if you’ve ever tried to stick two magnets together, sometimes if you have the correct ends, bam, they’ll stick together. But if you have the wrong ends, if you have the north end of one magnet and the north end of another magnet, you try to push them together, they say, no, thank you, and.

[00:02:46] Speaker A: You can’t do it. Like the little car or train sets that are magnetized. And if you flip it around, you can actually drive the little car away. Yes.

[00:02:55] Speaker B: Because your forces of one are not. They are pushing away from each other because they’re kind of pushing in the same direction, and nobody likes that. They don’t want to do that. So, with magnets, just like teenagers, opposites attract.

[00:03:08] Speaker A: Okay. That is a good. Okay. I do feel like I did learn that at some point, but, yes, it was probably 35 years ago.

[00:03:14] Speaker B: So funny, because when I was talking to Rand and he’s like, how do they work? And I sat there, and I was like, well, there’s forces, and there’s pushing.

[00:03:24] Speaker A: Right? Like, things.

[00:03:26] Speaker B: Oh, I don’t actually know.

[00:03:27] Speaker A: I’ll look it up, and you can magnetize the thing. But, yeah.

[00:03:36] Speaker B: So, let’s do some weird magnet history, because now we’ve got kind of a little basics of magnets. So, lodestones, they called them sometimes were known by the people of Asia Minor in what is now Turkey, ancient China, the Greeks, all these cultures knew at the time where there were rocks that attracted iron.

[00:03:57] Speaker A: Okay.

[00:03:58] Speaker B: Naturally occurring rocks that, just because of their composition, everybody’s going in the same direction. And even the name. This shocked me comes from a place where they were common. Magnesia on the meander. And that was an Asia minder.

[00:04:13] Speaker A: I had no idea. I’m googling it. I want to know what magnesia on the meander looks like.

[00:04:22] Speaker B: All I can find were pictures that had very classical looking ruins.

[00:04:26] Speaker A: Yeah, same.

[00:04:28] Speaker B: Yeah. I was really hoping for something super fancy. If Amy finds something fancy, we’ll put that in the show notes. The Chinese were the ones who figured out that if you took a small piece of this lodestone, this magnetic stone, and you put it on a float, and you put that float in a bowl of water that it would always point south. So then you could have, like, the other end pointing with a little pointer on it, and it would point north. And so you could use that on a ship to find directions. No one knew why.

[00:05:00] Speaker A: Yes. That’s my next question.

[00:05:02] Speaker B: Yeah, initially, we don’t know why it just works magic.

[00:05:06] Speaker A: What is it?

[00:05:06] Speaker B: Any technology sufficiently advanced is going to look like magic. This was definitely one of those. I can only imagine putting some of this in a bucket and showing it to your friends and they’d be like, that’s spirits or demons.

[00:05:18] Speaker A: Yeah. But anything has to be better than I’ve seen the viking trick of using a crystal. But it has to be a sunny day.

[00:05:25] Speaker B: Yes.

[00:05:27] Speaker A: So a compass would be better.

[00:05:29] Speaker B: It would be much better. And there were superstitions around these new compasses.

[00:05:32] Speaker A: I can see. Yeah.

[00:05:35] Speaker B: Sometimes, depending on the. Some people felt that garlic shouldn’t be allowed on ships because the fumes. They thought the fumes would interfere with the compass in some way. There was also something where Columbus was reported to have thought that the compass was pointing at the stars. Because here’s the thing, it doesn’t lay completely flat. It’s kind of bowing towards the earth’s magnetic field. So it would tilt a little in the water.

Yeah. And so it was pointing in a specific direction. But when we weren’t really thinking about the roundness being so round of the planet.

[00:06:10] Speaker A: Yeah.

[00:06:11] Speaker B: So he was like, oh, it’s pointing at the stars, and I’ll follow the stars. Well, we all saw how well that worked out.

[00:06:18] Speaker A: Yeah.

[00:06:19] Speaker B: Other cool. And then there’s cool things you can do with magnets. I love this. You can repel sharks.

[00:06:24] Speaker A: I feel like I’ve seen a thing on sharks and magnets.

They do have a sense, like, they can sense magnetism. You’re going to tell us. I will listen now. Yeah.

[00:06:35] Speaker B: So they sense electrical fields. No.

[00:06:38] Speaker A: Yeah.

[00:06:38] Speaker B: And everything that’s living gives off some. We got electrons running around. We’re going to give off these electrical fields. Magnetic fields are similar. We use magnets going around a coil of wire to push electrons, and that’s what makes electricity in a generator. Right. And so they had this idea, we’ll stick magnets on fishing nets because often the sharks are like snacks all in a bag. How convenient. And so they put the magnets on the nets, and one scientist said that they felt that it was like opening a door and getting hit with a bad smell for the shark. Get too close and they’re, ah. And there is a National Geographic video which the ad would not close. I’m going to find a better video. And I could see little bits of sharks going and swimming away from the magnets.

[00:07:28] Speaker A: Feel like they’ve done something about that on shark week.

[00:07:31] Speaker B: Oh, I’m sure.

[00:07:32] Speaker A: Channel.

[00:07:33] Speaker B: Yeah. And you are a shark week aficionado.

[00:07:35] Speaker A: You would some years, some years are better than others. I wonder how they figured out the shark thing. Like, there was a guy who was just super into magnets and swam with sharks. I’m curious how that originated.

[00:07:48] Speaker B: Well, either that or they went, well, it’s electrical fields and magnets are kind of doing this. Let’s try it.

[00:07:53] Speaker A: Yeah, that’s true. Scientists will throw some things at the wall. Yeah.

[00:07:57] Speaker B: See if he gets bitten.

[00:07:59] Speaker A: He didn’t.

[00:08:00] Speaker B: Wow. That worked great.

[00:08:03] Speaker A: Yeah. The endless inquisitiveness of scientists is on our side there.

[00:08:08] Speaker B: Yes, I do like that. Here’s another thing that they’re trying with magnets. There’s a group developing a process to use treated iron oxide. So magnets like iron, iron oxide. This is, like, in a powdery form to sprinkle on oil spills in the ocean.

[00:08:23] Speaker A: Okay.

[00:08:24] Speaker B: So the oxide combines with the oil, and then they can drive a boat with a big magnet on it to pick up chunks of oil.

Now, this is still in the petri dish phase. So I looked at some very cute little tiny petri dishes where it’s a little bit of oil and a little bit of water, and they sprinkle some stuff on it, and they could pick it up with a magnet. And then their thought was, if we cleaned off the oil, we could reuse the sprinkles that we are cleaning with. So, I don’t know. It’s in the works. It would be a thing to do.

[00:08:54] Speaker A: Did they ball up, like mercury, or.

[00:08:56] Speaker B: Does it looked more like clumping cat litter?

[00:08:59] Speaker A: Oh, okay. Yeah, that would be amazing if that worked and if they could reuse the.

[00:09:07] Speaker B: Magnets so we’re not just throwing away this dust that we’re using to pick up with that magnet. And then I thought this was fascinating. So magnets are being used to fight depression and OCD.

[00:09:22] Speaker A: Is it some wristband?

[00:09:24] Speaker B: Please tell no jewelry called transcranial magnetic stimulation.

[00:09:30] Speaker A: I feel like I’ve read some blogs of somebody. Do people still blog? Can we call it that?

[00:09:35] Speaker B: I don’t know. Do they?

[00:09:36] Speaker A: Tell me more.

[00:09:37] Speaker B: Well, the FDA has approved it for obsessive compulsive disorder. So you’re sitting in a chair, and it’s got this almost looks like the x ray machine at the dentist that they put up against your head, and it’s putting electromagnetic pulses into the brain through the skull because it just goes right through. And I love the Mayo clinic, was all. We don’t really understand how it works, but it does.

[00:10:05] Speaker A: Okay. The blog s. I have to look her up and see if that’s what she did. Okay.

[00:10:11] Speaker B: I remember I’ve listened to a podcast where somebody, oh, no, they were doing electrical, so they were going and getting electrical stimulation to their brain. And that also worked for depression. And again, we’re kind of like, well, it’s an electrical system.

I don’t know. Do you feel better? Moving on.

[00:10:27] Speaker A: Yeah. Jenny Lawson has written a lot about her experience with transcranial magnetic stimulation and has had some results that are really interesting. So if you’re interested in that, on the health front, she had some compelling things to say. So I guess I have heard of that. Jenny Lawson and her books are laugh and cry delightful. So if you need a very cathartic read where you’re going to snort your pop out your nose and cry with her, they’re hilarious. And she’ll tell you about her transcranial magnetic stimulation.

[00:11:06] Speaker B: Okay, I’ll put that in the show notes, too, so that you can go look at it. And then I have saved the absolute best for last frontiers of zoology, an open access paper in 2013. Dogs prefer to poop aligned north and.

[00:11:23] Speaker A: South so they might sense magnets like shark.

[00:11:28] Speaker B: Okay. So the study made it very clear in the abstract in the beginning that it’s a very preliminary, very self reported science, but there seems to be some magnetic field sensitivity in dogs because there are other animals like we think, pigeons. So it was a two year study, 70 dogs, 37 breeds, 1893 defecations and a little over 5500 urinations.

[00:11:56] Speaker A: I can just imagine the pet owners with their battleship style grid. Yes.

Going out every day with the dog off leash.

[00:12:07] Speaker B: And they were like, and if there were calm magnetic field conditions, so hopefully there aren’t any sunspots going on or there’s nothing interesting going on. And dogs were turning on the compass to poo north to south. Like, they definitely preferred it over east to west, although it was not huge percentages. And again, they were like, this is all very preliminary, but my thought was, could you put a couple of big magnets in your yard and get your dogs to go to the bathroom in specific places?

[00:12:37] Speaker A: Yes. Could you create a zone?

[00:12:42] Speaker B: Yeah. So it’s like, if you have a pacemaker, don’t go to that side of my yard. It will kill you. But your dog will poop correctly.

[00:12:49] Speaker A: Yes. You can keep from having areas that are. Yeah, I’m curious if they would like the side that attracts or repels or if that would matter to the dog.

[00:13:02] Speaker B: Yeah. And see, that was the thing because it’s a north south axis. So that doesn’t mean that your dog is facing north and then going to the bathroom. But it was definitely like they wanted their body lined up so they might be facing different directions. But then they also had diagrams with circles with the direction north, south, east, west, and the distribution. And you’re like, well, okay, I guess I can see there’s more interesting.

[00:13:30] Speaker A: Yeah, somebody’s going to write a grant about that.

[00:13:33] Speaker B: So thank you, Rand, for sending us down this long, strange, winding path of magnetism. I had no clue it was much cooler than just sticking magnets to your refrigerator.

[00:13:44] Speaker A: Anytime we can talk about sharks and dog poop and stuff. Awesome, right? Yeah. And sometimes when Trace and I talk about episodes after the fact, she’s like, you were really quiet there. And it’s because I’m taking mental notes and my gears are grinding. So, like, the full pause at the beginning of the episode, usually there’s some excitement about the subject. And I was thinking, you guys, I’m sorry.

[00:14:09] Speaker B: I was just concerned because we’re using a different recording. I was like, Amy, Amy, are you still.

[00:14:16] Speaker A: Yes. Yes.

[00:14:18] Speaker B: Tap the microphone if you’re okay.

[00:14:20] Speaker A: It’s worse on things where I have some knowledge, too, because my brain is frantically trying to put pieces together.

[00:14:27] Speaker B: Same.

[00:14:28] Speaker A: Yeah. If I have no idea, I’m just delighted slate is clean.

All right, let’s do an outro, shall we?

[00:14:39] Speaker B: Sounds great. You know what we should add in the shop? Magnets.

[00:14:43] Speaker A: Yes.

[00:14:45] Speaker B: You know, the thing that I came across, in addition to all the facts about magnets was don’t eat magnets.


[00:14:52] Speaker A: Yes.

Can you eat just one? Is the problem eating multiples?

[00:14:57] Speaker B: Yeah. Because if you have multiples. Okay.

[00:15:01] Speaker A: never eat them.

[00:15:03] Speaker B: No food. Yeah. And they came out with this kid toy thing that was all these little magnetic beads, and you could build stuff out of them, like cubes and things like that. The warnings on this box, because if you eat a couple and they go into your intestines, they could, like, stick to each other through your organs.


[00:15:27] Speaker A: If you’d like to connect with us and tell us about that time you ate some magnets.

[00:15:31] Speaker B: No.

[00:15:32] Speaker A: I want to hear the story, but don’t post it to our page. Message us. Brainjunk podcast on Facebook and Instagram. You could send it to brainjunkpodcast@gmail.com.

[00:15:43] Speaker B: That’s true, Trace

[00:15:47] Speaker A: Next time when we share more of everything you never knew you wanted know, and I guarantee you will not be bored.

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