Summary: Magnetic forces are among the most potent power sources in the known universe. And just like the force of (1)gravity, magnetic forces are ever-present, constantly at work, and they have a dramatic impact on our daily lives. In fact, were it not for magnetism and all of its inherent forces, our species would not (could not) exist on this planet. We owe our existence to magnetism At the center of our small solar system resides a massive nuclear power plant. We call it the...
Magnetic forces are among the most potent power sources in the known universe. And just like the force of (1)gravity, magnetic forces are ever-present, constantly at work, and they have a dramatic impact on our daily lives. In fact, were it not for magnetism and all of its inherent forces, our species would not (could not) exist on this planet.
We owe our existence to magnetism
At the center of our small solar system resides a massive nuclear power plant. We call it the Sun. It is a rather puny, mediocre star - as stars go. Still, its constant, countless nuclear explosions create unimaginable forces, one of which is referred to as the 'solar winds.' By the time these radiation-laden solar winds reach Earth, they are still hundreds of thousands of degrees, and traveling at about 1,000,000 miles per hour. Yes - that's one MILLION miles per hour. That equates to about 16,666 miles per minute, or 278 miles per second. Were it not for the Earth's natural magnetism, and massive magnetic field, the solar winds would course unimpeded over the planet's surface. Remove the Earth's magnetism and our beautiful blue planet would instantly become an uninhabitable place teeming with intense radiation, unbelievable winds, and temperatures capable of melting or disintegrating almost everything.
Magnetism was one of the first controllable power sources that man became aware of. Then, only naturally occurring magnets were present in the form of (2)lodestone. And while it is clear that humans became aware of magnetism thousands of years ago, it was not until much more recently that the powers were implemented for the benefit of the species. Save for folklore-based applications, the first known practical use of magnetism was in the making of the compass - an invention of the Chinese in the 12th century AD.
An early application of magnetism
The Chinese used lodestones as early as the 4th century AD in a divination ritual called "Geomancy." Geomancy, which is believed to be of Arabic origin, is about 'reading' various natural markings on the ground, or by having someone throw dirt in the air, and then reading the 'signs' created by the pattern of the dirt after it falls to the ground. There are absolute ties between Geomancy and various religious belief structures. By using lodestones in the practice of Geomancy, the Chinese were able to create exciting, unique readable patterns that were unmatched by any other civilization of the era. Part of the allure of this practice in China was the fact that the dirt could move 'on its own,' even after it had hit the ground. Subtle shifts in gentle winds, or small vibrations on the ground were enough to cause the stationery dirt to move - right in front of the eyes of believers.
Prehistoric navigation with magnetism
There is bacterium that is composed of single pieces of magnetite that form a string inside of its microscopic-sized body. It is actually a "living magnet" as the majority of its bulk is comprised of the magnetite pieces. The creation of minerals inside of living organisms is not uncommon. The teeth and bones of humans, for example, are minerals formed by, and inside of, living tissues. These have only recently been discovered, and it took an electron microscope set at 100,000x to see the miniscule magnetite chains. Many animals, including humans, have similar magnetic components. It is widely believed that because some animals are clearly using magnetism for their navigation, such as the notorious homing pigeons, that magnetic tissues and minerals exist for the host's navigational purposes. Recently, some researchers have started to think it's there for much more than just helping us find north. It is quite possible that magnetism, for example, guides the directional growth and strength of bones in humans. In humans, by the way, these tiny living magnetic systems are in our brains - and maybe in other places as well.
Oddly, humans still don't really know how magnetism works - anymore than we know how gravity works. We have equations to express both, and rules to follow regarding both - but we really don't know how they work. It was not until the mid-20th century that man actually started to get a solid understanding of the rules of magnetism, and ways to implement it. In 1950, the average American household had fewer than five magnets employed. By the end of the century, the average household employed hundreds of magnets. They are everywhere in our culture today - controlling and powering and amazing.
Magnetism and marriage
It was once believed, and not that long ago, that if you placed a piece of lodestone under the pillow of your spouse while they slept, in the morning, they would voluntarily tell all about their illicit, extra-marital affairs. They say all folklore has a basis in fact - one's mind boggles at contemplating how this one got started