How DOES magnetism work?

He doesn't know either: Gilbert demonstrating the magnet before Queen Elizabeth /Wellcome Images

Last year I saw A C Grayling talk on happiness and it’s importance. He said that he bans his students from using the word ‘happy’, that it’s a lazy portmanteau word. He thinks that if you are forced to choose a different word – hopeful, exhilarated, content – you’ll think about what you really mean far more clearly.

I think the same can sometimes be true of jargon. Scientists taking part in I’m a Scientist have told us before that explaining yourself without using jargon is hard work, but unexpectedly rewarding. It means you have to think through what you mean and it exposes your mental shortcuts.

We saw a great example of this in Imaging Zone. A fairly innocuous-seeming question (Why do magnets attract and repel?) pretty much lead to the scientists realising that they don’t actually know how magnets worked. Not really. Not when they tried to actually explain it to other people, without using jargon.

Now these scientists include a man who spends many of his days working with an fMRI scanner, containing a magnet so powerful that you have to remove any ferrous object from your person before entering the room. But still, magnetism turned out to be one of those things that he learned about years ago, and sort of assumed he understood.

I’m expecting that some of you have the same feeling I did when reading that Q+A – ‘OMG, I don’t REALLY understand how magnets work either. How did I not notice that before?’ I think the thing is, most of us rarely discuss how magnets work. And when we do, we use technical words (‘dipole’, ‘electromagnetic’, ‘electron shell’) which we and our listeners all know, which can obscure the fact that you don’t truly understand the underlying mechanism.

By all accounts this question, and the attempts to answer it, lead to an awful lot of magnetism-related discussions at scientific breakfast tables and coffee machines around the country. So, one outcome, of just this question, has been much thinking about and discussing the mysteries of physics, by scientists, with colleagues, and others, about a subject they all thought they understood, but actually it turns out they’ve got lots of questions about it.

If the essence of science is asking questions and taking nothing for granted, then I’d call this a result.

This post started life as part of a mammoth post I’ve been writing about how June’s I’m a Scientist event went. The post has taken about three days so far and we’re up to 3,000 words. So I thought I should really break it into bits and start bunging some up now.

Posted on July 13, 2010 by in Evaluation, IAS Event, Scientists. 2 Comments.

2 Responses to How DOES magnetism work?

  1. Gerran Thomas says:

    This is a specific question which relates to a more general problem – explaining the nature of science itself. Many (perhaps most) scientists have never thought about this, as the philosophy of science is not part of most undergraduate courses. This leads to a lot of the ‘lazy thinking’ that you are implicitly criticising.
    If only scientists could at least be taught that:
    1) scientists collect data, and
    2) scientists interpret data using theories and models, and
    3) theories and models, being human constructs, are not perfect, and
    4) theories and models change over time as more data are collected
    we would be a lot further down the road.
    Of course, we should also guard against the creationists and other ‘anti-science’ groups, who claim that, because science is imperfect, it is no more valid than faith-based explanations of the universe. Scientific theories and models DO correspond to observed data, or they would be rejected – but we can’t be certain that different and better theories won’t be developed in future. All faith based ‘explanations’ lack any sort of correspondence with observable data, and are non-science (some of us would also say “nonsense”, though I am aware that it is is perfectly possible for some individuals to separate their scientific work from their faith basis for life in general.)

  2. SophiaC says:

    Hi Gerren, thanks for your comment.

    That is an excellent summary of some key ideas about the nature of science. Those are exactly the kind of points that How Science Works (now a significant part of the GCSE syllabus) is supposed to communicate to students.

    Part of the opposition to HSW, IMHO, comes from adults who don’t grasp those ideas themselves and therefore don’t understand why they are so crucial. As you point out, most scientists never get taught them, so many science teachers don’t know much about them and they find them difficult to teach. A review concluded that teachers need good quality resources to help them cover these ideas, and that is something we’ve tried to provide as part of our project.

    Our resources are all Creative Commons and free for any teacher to use

    A slight point, but I hope I wasn’t ‘implicitly criticising lazy thinking’ by our scientists. They were all great! I was more trying to make the point that for any of us, there are ideas that we don’t fully examine – or sometimes it’s not possible to fully examine – unless something prompts us to think deeper.

    And that’s fine! If we went around questioning absolutely everything all day, we’d never even get out of the house. If you’ve ever watched a group of people on acid trying to get it together to go to the shops, then you’ll know what I mean.

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