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We’ve been talking about magnets for the past two lessons and finding out all about what they are and how they work. Well, I’ve got a little surprise for you. Right under your feet, there’s a magnet. Go ahead take a look. Lift up your feet and see what’s under there. Do you see it? It’s huge! In fact, it’s the largest magnet on the Earth. As a matter of fact...it is the Earth! That’s right, the Earth is one huge, gigantic, monolithic magnet!

The Earth’s a Magnet?Earthscore

“But Jim, we’ve learned that magnets need electrons flowing and the right metals and stuff like that. Is the Earth one big hunk of iron?” No, but that’s a good question. Where does the magnetic field come from? At this point, folks are still trying to figure that out. The most widely accepted theory is that the magnetic field comes from the Earth’s core. The core of the Earth is solid but around that core is a liquid. The liquid is basically molten iron, nickel and a few other elements. It is the flowing of the electrons in this liquid metal that probably causes the Earth’s magnetic field. So, yes the Earth is a magnet, but not a very strong one. You probably couldn’t even stick it to a sun size refrigerator. The Earth has a magnetic pull 100 times weaker then the magnets on your fridge. The Earth, by the way, is not the only giant magnet in the solar system. The Sun, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Mercury and Neptune are also magnets.

The Poles

“Oh, yeah. Now I remember. That’s the deal with the North and South poles right?” Well, yes and no. To confuse things a bit, there are two sets of North and South poles. There’s the geographic North and South poles and the magnetic north and south poles. The geographic poles are located at the axis of the Earth. The axis is where the Earth turns day after day. Like the top and bottom of a toy top. The magnetic poles are close to the geographic poles but they are off by quite a bit. In fact, the north and south magnetic poles of the Earth move from year to year and there is some evidence that they have completely flipped a couple of times!

Magnetic FieldEarthsmagfield

The Earth may be a weak magnet, but it has a gigantic magnetic field. The Earth’s magnetic field gets warped by the Sun’s solar winds. So on the side towards the Sun the field can reach over 43,500 miles or 70,000 km into space. On the side away from the Sun, the field can stretch out much farther. This field forms a bit of a barrier against the cosmic rays from the Sun and is called the magnetosphere. Sun flares often hit this magnetosphere and create auroras. Auroras are beautiful light shows in the sky that normally take place in the very northern or southern hemispheres.







Experiment 1

Play the Field


You need:

A cork

A nail

A fairly strong magnet

A cup or bowl

A pair of pliers


1. Take a nail in one hand and the magnet in the other.

2. Stroke the magnet along the nail. Make sure to always stroke in the same direction. From the head to the tip for example. Do that at least twenty times.

3. Check to see if your nail is now magnetized by trying to pick up a paper clip or two.

4. Carefully, use the pliers to shove the nail through the cork. Try to put the nail as close to the center of the cork as you can. Please be careful to not stick yourself.

5. Fill the bowl or the cup to the very brim with water. You actually want to over fill it a bit so that the water is a bit above the rim of the cup or bowl.

6. Float your cork in the water.


You should see your magnetized nail aligning itself in a north/south direction. Since your nail is now a magnet, it can be blown by the magnetic winds (to put it poetically). I like to imagine the magnetic field like a flowing water current going from south to north. If anything is put in that current that’s magnetic, it will be affected by the flow and turn in the direction of the flow. Like a weather vane turning in the wind, a compass turns in the magnetic field. Want to see what else turns in the magnetic field? Try this.


Experiment 2

The South Side of The Fridge


You need:


Iron and steel stuff (for example, bean and soup cans work well)

1. Take your compass and find a steel can in your house (steel has iron in it).

2. Hold your compass near the bottom of the can and see which end of the compass needle points to the can.

3. Now hold your compass near the top of the can and see which end of the compass points to the can.

4. Try this with other cans, as well as the refrigerator, the car, the TV stand, any thing that’s metal.


What you may have seen is that the compass needle pointed one way on one side of the can, but the other way at the other side of the can, or fridge or whatever else you tried. What’s going on? Well all those things tend to sit in the Earth’s magnetic field in one direction, for a long time. You don’t turn your refrigerator upside-down very often do you? So, as they sit in the weak, but constant “wind” of the magnetic field, the iron atoms turn in the direction of the field. Over time, enough of them turn to cause your can, fridge or car to have a weak but definite magnetic field of their own!


In A Nutshell

-The Earth has a huge magnetic field.

-The Earth has a weak magnetic force.

-The magnetic field probably comes from the moving electrons in the currents of the Earth’s molten core.

-The Earth has a north and a south magnetic pole which is different from the geographic north and south pole.

-Compasses turn with the force of the magnetic field.

-Over time iron atoms will align themselves with the force of the magnetic field.


Did You Get It?

1. What causes the Earth’s magnetic field?

2. Is the magnetic field small, or large?

3. The magnetic force of the Earth is strong. True or False?

4. Why do compasses point north?



1. The magnetic field probably comes from the moving electrons in the currents of the Earth’s molten core.

2. The magnetic field is very large. It reaches out to space and actually helps to shield us from the Sun’s cosmic rays.

3. False, the actual force of the Earth’s magnetism is 100 times less then a common refrigerator magnet. (Be thankful, otherwise you’d have a very hard time opening a can of beans!)

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