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Here’s a riddle. I stick to some things but not to others. I stick but I’m not sticky. I attract some things but push other things away and, if allowed to move, I will always point the same way. What am I? Well, since you know the topic of this lesson this isn’t the hardest riddle to solve. I’m a magnet right? Sure. But take a look at the wacky things a magnet does! It sticks but it’s not sticky. It only sticks to certain things, and it pushes some things away. If you hang it from a string or float it in water, it will always point North. If that’s not enough strangeness, as we’ll find out in a later lesson, magnets can actually create electricity! Wow, what a wacky thing a magnet is! So what is a magnet? What is going on with all those bizarre little shapes that are sticking to my fridge!?

What Causes Magnetism?

Believe it or not, electrons! Those wacky little fellows that we learned about several lessons ago are the key to magnetism. As you move further and further in your science education, you’ll notice that electrons are responsible for a lot of stuff that goes on in science! More accurately, a majority of electrons moving in a similar direction creates a magnetic field. This is how electromagnets work. Electrons are forced to move through a wire and the moving electrons cause a magnetic field. We’ll look deeper into magnetic fields in the next lesson.

Electron Spin

“But Jim, how are electrons moving in my Cranky the Clown magnet on my fridge? It isn’t connected to any battery. What’s going on there!? Don’t I need electricity to have moving electrons?” Well said, fellow Cranky the Clown fan. Electromagnets do have electricity flowing through them. Electricity is nothing more than moving electrons. So it’s the electricity that causes the magnetic force in electromagnets. However, most of the magnets you run across are not attached to any form of electricity. So how are the electrons moving? Electrons move on their own. They move around the nucleus and they spin. It’s the electron spin that tends to be responsible for the magnetic field in those “permanent” magnets (the magnets that maintain a magnetic field without electricity flowing). “But don’t electrons always spin? Shouldn’t everything be magnetic?” My, you’re filled with fine observations today. Yes, electrons are always spinning. The reason some things are magnetic and other things aren’t is due to the balance of the spinning electrons. Electrons are said to spin left or right. It not quite that simple but it makes it easier to think and talk about. Most atoms have a fairly even number of left and right spinning atoms. If there’s four spinning left, there’s four spinning right. If there’s nine spinning right, there’s eight spinning left. Since they are fairly balanced, there’s no net direction that the electrons are moving in. With no over all direction of movement there’s no magnetic force. However, there are a few atoms, iron being the most famous, that are not in balance. Iron has four more electrons that spin in one direction than in the other. This excess of same spinning electrons creates a net directional movement and thus, a magnetic force! Nickel and Cobalt are other fairly common magnetic metals.

Atomic Line Upmagnetnail

“Aha, so everything that’s made of iron is magnetic! Got it.” Well, not so fast. Yes, each iron atom is like a little magnet but not all iron objects have a magnetic field. In fact, most don’t. The reason that most objects that have iron in them are not magnetic is because the atoms are all jumbled up. Imagine I gave you a shoe box filled with small magnets. Since I just threw the magnets in there, they are all jumbled up. Some are facing right, some left, some up and some down. Because of the jumble, the whole box may not have much magnetic force since the magnets inside are all canceling each other out. Now, imagine what would happen if the magnets inside the box did all face the same way. If I stuck them all end to end and created a long string of magnets. Now the box would have a very powerful magnetic force, right? This is the difference between an iron nail and a magnet. The nail has iron atoms going all which ways, while the magnet has iron atoms that are fairly lined up. The more lined up the iron atoms are, the stronger the magnetic force.




Experiment 1

Make a Magnet

(Here's a movie of this experiment.)

You need: item4

An steel nail (steel is a combination of iron and carbon)

A magnet (the stronger the better)

Metal paper clips.

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. Now see if your nail can pick up any paper clips. Feel free to strengthen your magnet nail by continuing to stroke the nail with the permanent magnet.


You actually twisted and turned atoms! As you moved the permanent magnet over the nail the iron atoms in the nail actually turned, to align themselves with the magnetic field of the magnet. Once enough iron atoms turned the nail itself became a magnet! Congratulations, you atomic manipulator you!


Experiment 2

Destroy a Magnet


You need:

The magnet nail you made in the last experiment.

1. Drop it on a hard surface. A table, floor or sidewalk would work well.

2. Drop it again.

3. Drop it again.

4. Drop it....you get the picture. Drop it four or five times.

5. Now see if it picks up any paper clips. Is the nail still a magnet?


Here you took atoms that were all nicely lined up and messed them up so they pointed in different directions. Since they weren’t lined up as nicely anymore they had much less or perhaps no magnetic force. If you remember the magnets in a box that we were talking about before. This is like you took that box that had all the magnets lined up and dropped it. CRASH! They get all jumbled up and next thing you know the box no longer has nearly as strong of a magnetic force.

Magnets Are Picky Where They Are Sticky

“So, how come I can get a magnet to stick to a refrigerator but not my brother’s head?” Ah, I’m glad to see that you’re experimenting! (You might not want to use your siblings as test subjects though...just a thought.) In a way, you could say that magnets only stick to other magnets. I know you refrigerator is not a magnet but bear with me for a second. Your fridge is made of a metal that has iron in it. Remember that each iron atom is kind of like a little magnet. So your fridge is made of bunches of little magnets. The reason you can’t stick paper clips to your fridge is that all those little “atom magnets” are pointing in different directions and canceling out their magnetic fields. But what happens when a magnetic field gets close to those little “atom magnets”? They turn. The atoms turn so that their poles are opposite of the poles of the magnet. (We’ll talk more about poles in a later lesson.) Since they have turned, they now act like a magnet and the Cranky Clown magnet can now be attracted to the atoms in the fridge. Once you remove the Cranky Clown magnet, the atoms in that part of the fridge go back to being mixed up.


Experiment 3

Atomic Manipulationitem5


You need:

A permanent magnet (the stronger the better)

Paper clips

1. Attach a paper clip to your magnet.

2. Can you dangle another paper clip from the end of your first one?

3. How many can you dangle from each other. Two, three, four, more?

4. What happens if you remove the permanent magnet from the top of the chain?


The paper clips became temporary magnets didn’t they? The permanent magnet turned the iron atoms in the paperclips so that they aligned with the field of the permanent magnet. Since those atoms are all facing in a similar direction, they can now create a magnetic field of their own. So the paper clip becomes a magnet as long as a magnet is near it. Once the permanent magnet gets too far away, the atoms go back to mish-mosh and no longer have much of a magnetic field.

In the next lesson, we will learn more about magnetism, magnetic fields, and magnetic poles.

In A Nutshell

-Magnetic fields are created by electrons moving in the same direction.

-Electrons can have a “left” or “right” spin.

-If an atom has more electrons spinning in one direction than in the other, that atom has a magnetic field.

-If an object is filled with atoms that have an abundance of electrons spinning in the same direction, and if those atoms are lined up in the same direction, that object will have a magnetic force.

Did You Get It?

1. What causes a magnetic field?

2. Why are most magnets made of mostly iron?

3. Why aren’t iron nails magnetic?

4. How can you make a nail magnetic?

5. Why don’t most things stick to magnets?


1. Electrons moving in a the same basic direction.

2. Iron atoms have four electrons that all move in the same direction and are not balanced by four electrons going in the opposite direction.

3. The atoms in the nail aren’t lined up. They are scattered every which way.

4. Expose it to a magnetic force. If it is exposed long enough, the atoms in the nail will align themselves to the magnetic force and the nail will become a magnet itself.

5. Most things have atoms that have a balanced number of electrons spinning in both directions. Since they are balanced, the atoms themselves are not little magnets and don’t react much to a magnetic field. Magnets can only attract things that are effected by a magnetic field and only a few metals have atoms that are effected by a magnetic field.

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