Magnetism is the force exerted by magnets when they attract or repel each other. Magnetism is caused by the motion of electric charges.

Every substance is made up of tiny units called atoms. Each atom has electrons, particles that carry electric charges. Spinning like tops, the electrons circle the nucleus, or core, of an atom. Their movement generates an electric current and causes each electron to act like a microscopic magnet.

In most substances, equal numbers of electrons spin in opposite directions, which cancels out their magnetism. That is why materials such as cloth or paper are said to be weakly magnetic. In substances such as iron, cobalt, and nickel, most of the electrons spin in the same direction. This makes the atoms in these substances strongly magnetic—but they are not yet magnets.

To become magnetized, another strongly magnetic substance must enter the magnetic field of an existing magnet. The magnetic field is the area around a magnet that has magnetic force.

All magnets have north and south poles. Opposite poles are attracted to each other, while the same poles repel each other. When you rub a piece of iron along a magnet, the north-seeking poles of the atoms in the iron line up in the same direction. The force generated by the aligned atoms creates a magnetic field. The piece of iron has become a magnet.

Some substances can be magnetized by an electric current. When electricity runs through a coil of wire, it produces a magnetic field. The field around the coil will disappear, however, as soon as the electric current is turned off.

Geomagnetic Poles

The Earth is a magnet. Scientists do not fully understand why, but they think the movement of molten metal in the Earth’s outer core generates electric currents. The currents create a magnetic field with invisible lines of force flowing between the Earth’s magnetic poles.

The geomagnetic poles are not the same as the North and South Poles. Earth’s magnetic poles often move, due to activity far beneath the Earth’s surface. The shifting locations of the geomagnetic poles are recorded in rocks that form when molten material called magma wells up through the Earth’s crust and pours out as lava. As lava cools and becomes solid rock, strongly magnetic particles within the rock become magnetized by the Earth’s magnetic field. The particles line up along the lines of force in the Earth’s field. In this way, rocks lock in a record of the position of the Earth’s geomagnetic poles at that time.

Strangely, the magnetic records of rocks formed at the same time seem to point to different locations for the poles. According to the theory of plate tectonics, the rocky plates that make up the Earth’s hard shell are constantly moving. Thus, the plates on which the rocks solidified have moved since the rocks recorded the position of the geomagnetic poles. These magnetic records also show that the geomagnetic poles have reversed—changed into the opposite kind of pole—hundreds of times since the Earth formed.

Earth’s magnetic field does not move quickly or reverse often. Therefore, it can be a useful tool for helping people find their way around. For hundreds of years, people have used magnetic compasses to navigate using Earth’s magnetic field. The magnetic needle of a compass lines up with Earth’s magnetic poles. The north end of a magnet points toward the magnetic north pole.

Earth’s magnetic field dominates a region called the magnetosphere, which wraps around the planet and its atmosphere. Solar wind, charged particles from the sun, presses the magnetosphere against the Earth on the side facing the sun and stretches it into a teardrop shape on the shadow side.

The magnetosphere protects the Earth from most of the particles, but some leak through it and become trapped. When particles from the solar wind hit atoms of gas in the upper atmosphere around the geomagnetic poles, they produce light displays called auroras. These auroras appear over places like Alaska, Canada and Scandinavia, where they are sometimes called “Northern Lights.” The “Southern Lights” can be seen in Antarctica and New Zealand.

magnetism
The iron in the sand is magnetic, strongly attracted to the magnet on an atomic level.

Historic Directions
The ancient Greeks and Chinese knew about naturally magnetic stones called "lodestones." These chunks of iron-rich minerals may have been magnetized by lightning. The Chinese discovered that they could make a needle magnetic by stroking it against a lodestone, and that the needle would point north-south.

Animal Magnetism
Some animals, such as pigeons, bees, and salmon, can detect the Earth's magnetic field and use it to navigate. Scientists aren't sure how they do this, but these creatures seem to have magnetic material in their bodies that acts like a compass.

align
Verb

to put in a straight line.

Noun

layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

atom
Noun

the basic unit of an element, composed of three major parts: electrons, protons, and neutrons.

attract
Verb

to pull toward or cause to unite.

Noun

brightly colored bands of light, visible around Earth's geomagnetic poles, caused by solar wind interacting with particles in Earth's magnetic field.

cobalt
Noun

chemical element with the symbol Co.

Noun

instrument used to tell direction.

Noun

rocky outermost layer of Earth or other planet.

electric charge
Noun

property of all matter, either positive, negative, or zero.

electric current
Noun

rate of flow of electricity, measured in amperes.

electricity
Noun

set of physical phenomena associated with the presence and flow of electric charge.

electron
Noun

negatively charged subatomic particle.

exert
Verb

to force or pressure.

force
Noun

power or energy that activates movement.

generate
Verb

to create or begin.

geomagnetic pole
Noun

point marking the tilted north and south axes of Earth's magnetic field, about 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from the geographic poles.

iron
Noun

chemical element with the symbol Fe.

lava
Noun

molten rock, or magma, that erupts from volcanoes or fissures in the Earth's surface.

Noun

sudden electrical discharge from clouds.

lodestone
Noun

natural magnet.

Noun

molten, or partially melted, rock beneath the Earth's surface.

magnet
Noun

material that has the ability to physically attract other substances.

magnetic
Adjective

able to produce a force field that can attract or repel certain substances, usually metals (magnets).

magnetic field
Noun

area around and affected by a magnet or charged particle.

Noun

force by which objects attract or repel one another.

magnetize
Verb

to turn something into a magnet.

magnetosphere
Noun

magnetic field surrounding a planet.

microscopic
Adjective

very small.

mineral
Noun

inorganic material that has a characteristic chemical composition and specific crystal structure.

molten
Adjective

solid material turned to liquid by heat.

navigate
Verb

to plan and direct the course of a journey.

nickel
Noun

chemical element with the symbol Ni.

northern lights
Noun

also known as the aurora borealis. The bright bands of color around the North Pole caused by the solar wind and the Earth's magnetic field.

nucleus
Noun

positively charged central region of an atom, containing protons and neutrons.

outer core
Noun

liquid, iron-nickel layer of the Earth between the solid inner core and lower mantle.

particle
Noun

small piece of material.

plate tectonics
Noun

movement and interaction of the Earth's plates.

repel
Verb

to resist or push back.

rock
Noun

natural substance composed of solid mineral matter.

solar wind
Noun

flow of charged particles, mainly protons and electrons, from the sun to the edge of the solar system.

solidify
Verb

to make solid.

southern lights
Noun

the bright bands of color around the South Pole caused by the solar wind and the Earth's magnetic field. Also known as the aurora australis.