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Magnetism is a class of physical phenomena that includes forces exerted by magnets on other magnets. It has its origin in electric currents and the fundamental magnetic moments of elementary particles. These give rise to a magnetic field that acts on other currents and moments. All materials are influenced to some extent by a magnetic field. The strongest effect is on permanent magnets, which have persistent magnetic moments caused by ferromagnetism. Most materials do not have permanent moments. Some are attracted to a magnetic field ( paramagnetism); others are repulsed by a magnetic field ( diamagnetism); others have a much more complex relationship with an applied magnetic field ( spin glass behaviour and antiferromagnetism). Substances that are negligibly affected by magnetic fields are known as non-magnetic substances. They include copper, aluminium, gases, and plastic. Pure oxygen exhibits magnetic properties when cooled to a liquid state.

The magnetic state (or phase) of a material depends on temperature (and other variables such as pressure and the applied magnetic field) so that a material may exhibit more than one form of magnetism depending on its temperature, etc.


Aristotle attributed the first of what could be called a scientific discussion on magnetism to Thales of Miletus, who lived from about 625 BC to about 545 BC. Around the same time, in ancient India, the Indian surgeon, Sushruta, was the first to make use of the magnet for surgical purposes.

In ancient China, the earliest literary reference to magnetism lies in a 4th century BC book named after its author, The Master of Demon Valley (鬼谷子): "The lodestone makes iron come or it attracts it." The earliest mention of the attraction of a needle appears in a work composed between AD 20 and 100 (Louen-heng): "A lodestone attracts a needle." The ancient Chinese scientist Shen Kuo (1031–1095) was the first person to write of the magnetic needle compass and that it improved the accuracy of navigation by employing the astronomical concept of true north ( Dream Pool Essays, AD 1088), and by the 12th century the Chinese were known to use the lodestone compass for navigation. They sculpted a directional spoon from lodestone in such a way that the handle of the spoon always pointed south.

Alexander Neckham, by 1187, was the first in Europe to describe the compass and its use for navigation. In 1269, Peter Peregrinus de Maricourt wrote the Epistola de magnete, the first extant treatise describing the properties of magnets. In 1282, the properties of magnets and the dry compass were discussed by Al-Ashraf, a Yemeni physicist, astronomer, and geographer.

Michael Faraday, 1842

In 1600, William Gilbert published his De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on the Great Magnet the Earth). In this work he describes many of his experiments with his model earth called the terrella. From his experiments, he concluded that the Earth was itself magnetic and that this was the reason compasses pointed north (previously, some believed that it was the pole star ( Polaris) or a large magnetic island on the north pole that attracted the compass).

An understanding of the relationship between electricity and magnetism began in 1819 with work by Hans Christian Oersted, a professor at the University of Copenhagen, who discovered more or less by accident that an electric current could influence a compass needle. This landmark experiment is known as Oersted's Experiment. Several other experiments followed, with André-Marie Ampère, who in 1820 discovered that the magnetic field circulating in a closed-path was related to the current flowing through the perimeter of the path; Carl Friedrich Gauss; Jean-Baptiste Biot and Félix Savart, both of which in 1820 came up with the Biot-Savart Law giving an equation for the magnetic field from a current-carrying wire; Michael Faraday, who in 1831 found that a time-varying magnetic flux through a loop of wire induced a voltage, and others finding further links between magnetism and electricity. James Clerk Maxwell synthesized and expanded these insights into Maxwell's equations, unifying electricity, magnetism, and optics into the field of electromagnetism. In 1905, Einstein used these laws in motivating his theory of special relativity, requiring that the laws held true in all inertial reference frames.

Electromagnetism has continued to develop into the 21st century, being incorporated into the more fundamental theories of gauge theory, quantum electrodynamics, electroweak theory, and finally the standard model.


Hierarchy of types of magnetism.


Diamagnetism appears in all materials, and is the tendency of a material to oppose an applied magnetic field, and therefore, to be repelled by a magnetic field. However, in a material with paramagnetic properties (that is, with a tendency to enhance an external magnetic field), the paramagnetic behavior dominates. Thus, despite its universal occurrence, diamagnetic behaviour is observed only in a purely diamagnetic material. In a diamagnetic material, there are no unpaired electrons, so the intrinsic electron magnetic moments cannot produce any bulk effect. In these cases, the magnetization arises from the electrons' orbital motions, which can be understood classically as follows:

When a material is put in a magnetic field, the electrons circling the nucleus will experience, in addition to their Coulomb attraction to the nucleus, a Lorentz force from the magnetic field. Depending on which direction the electron is orbiting, this force may increase the centripetal force on the electrons, pulling them in towards the nucleus, or it may decrease the force, pulling them away from the nucleus. This effect systematically increases the orbital magnetic moments that were aligned opposite the field, and decreases the ones aligned parallel to the field (in accordance with Lenz's law). This results in a small bulk magnetic moment, with an opposite direction to the applied field.

Note that this description is meant only as an heuristic; a proper understanding requires a quantum-mechanical description.

Note that all materials undergo this orbital response. However, in paramagnetic and ferromagnetic substances, the diamagnetic effect is overwhelmed by the much stronger effects caused by the unpaired electrons.


In a paramagnetic material there are unpaired electrons, i.e. atomic or molecular orbitals with exactly one electron in them. While paired electrons are required by the Pauli exclusion principle to have their intrinsic ('spin') magnetic moments pointing in opposite directions, causing their magnetic fields to cancel out, an unpaired electron is free to align its magnetic moment in any direction. When an external magnetic field is applied, these magnetic moments will tend to align themselves in the same direction as the applied field, thus reinforcing it.


A permanent magnet holding up several coins

A ferromagnet, like a paramagnetic substance, has unpaired electrons. However, in addition to the electrons' intrinsic magnetic moment's tendency to be parallel to an applied field, there is also in these materials a tendency for these magnetic moments to orient parallel to each other to maintain a lowered-energy state. Thus, even when the applied field is removed, the electrons in the material maintain a parallel orientation.

Every ferromagnetic substance has its own individual temperature, called the Curie temperature, or Curie point, above which it loses its ferromagnetic properties. This is because the thermal tendency to disorder overwhelms the energy-lowering due to ferromagnetic order.

Some well-known ferromagnetic materials that exhibit easily detectable magnetic properties (to form magnets) are nickel, iron, cobalt, gadolinium and their alloys.

Magnetic domains

Magnetic domains in ferromagnetic material.

The magnetic moment of atoms in a ferromagnetic material cause them to behave something like tiny permanent magnets. They stick together and align themselves into small regions of more or less uniform alignment called magnetic domains or Weiss domains. Magnetic domains can be observed with a magnetic force microscope to reveal magnetic domain boundaries that resemble white lines in the sketch. There are many scientific experiments that can physically show magnetic fields.

Effect of a magnet on the domains.

When a domain contains too many molecules, it becomes unstable and divides into two domains aligned in opposite directions so that they stick together more stably as shown at the right.

When exposed to a magnetic field, the domain boundaries move so that the domains aligned with the magnetic field grow and dominate the structure as shown at the left. When the magnetizing field is removed, the domains may not return to an unmagnetized state. This results in the ferromagnetic material's being magnetized, forming a permanent magnet.

When magnetized strongly enough that the prevailing domain overruns all others to result in only one single domain, the material is magnetically saturated. When a magnetized ferromagnetic material is heated to the Curie point temperature, the molecules are agitated to the point that the magnetic domains lose the organization and the magnetic properties they cause cease. When the material is cooled, this domain alignment structure spontaneously returns, in a manner roughly analogous to how a liquid can freeze into a crystalline solid.


Antiferromagnetic ordering

In an antiferromagnet, unlike a ferromagnet, there is a tendency for the intrinsic magnetic moments of neighboring valence electrons to point in opposite directions. When all atoms are arranged in a substance so that each neighbour is 'anti-aligned', the substance is antiferromagnetic. Antiferromagnets have a zero net magnetic moment, meaning no field is produced by them. Antiferromagnets are less common compared to the other types of behaviors, and are mostly observed at low temperatures. In varying temperatures, antiferromagnets can be seen to exhibit diamagnetic and ferrimagnetic properties.

In some materials, neighboring electrons want to point in opposite directions, but there is no geometrical arrangement in which each pair of neighbors is anti-aligned. This is called a spin glass, and is an example of geometrical frustration.


Ferrimagnetic ordering

Like ferromagnetism, ferrimagnets retain their magnetization in the absence of a field. However, like antiferromagnets, neighboring pairs of electron spins like to point in opposite directions. These two properties are not contradictory, because in the optimal geometrical arrangement, there is more magnetic moment from the sublattice of electrons that point in one direction, than from the sublattice that points in the opposite direction.

Most ferrites are ferrimagnetic. The first discovered magnetic substance, magnetite, is a ferrite and was originally believed to be a ferromagnet; Louis Néel disproved this, however, after discovering ferrimagnetism.


When a ferromagnet or ferrimagnet is sufficiently small, it acts like a single magnetic spin that is subject to Brownian motion. Its response to a magnetic field is qualitatively similar to the response of a paramagnet, but much larger.


An electromagnet is a type of magnet whose magnetism is produced by the flow of electric current. The magnetic field disappears when the current ceases.

Other types of magnetism

  • Molecular magnet
  • Metamagnetism
  • Molecule-based magnet
  • Spin glass

Magnetism, electricity, and special relativity

As a consequence of Einstein's theory of special relativity, electricity and magnetism are fundamentally interlinked. Both magnetism lacking electricity, and electricity without magnetism, are inconsistent with special relativity, due to such effects as length contraction, time dilation, and the fact that the magnetic force is velocity-dependent. However, when both electricity and magnetism are taken into account, the resulting theory (electromagnetism) is fully consistent with special relativity. In particular, a phenomenon that appears purely electric to one observer may be purely magnetic to another, or more generally the relative contributions of electricity and magnetism are dependent on the frame of reference. Thus, special relativity "mixes" electricity and magnetism into a single, inseparable phenomenon called electromagnetism, analogous to how relativity "mixes" space and time into spacetime.

Magnetic fields in a material

In a vacuum,

\mathbf{B} \ = \ \mu_0\mathbf{H},

where μ0 is the vacuum permeability.

In a material,

\mathbf{B} \ = \ \mu_0(\mathbf{H} + \mathbf{M}). \

The quantity μ0M is called magnetic polarization.

If the field H is small, the response of the magnetization M in a diamagnet or paramagnet is approximately linear:

 \mathbf{M} = \chi \mathbf{H},

the constant of proportionality being called the magnetic susceptibility. If so,

\mu_0(\mathbf{H} + \mathbf{M}) \ = \ \mu_0(1+\chi) \mathbf{H} \ = \ \mu_r\mu_0 \mathbf{H} \ = \ \mu \mathbf{H}.

In a hard magnet such as a ferromagnet, M is not proportional to the field and is generally nonzero even when H is zero (see Remanence).

Force due to magnetic field - The magnetic force

Magnetic lines of force of a bar magnet shown by iron filings on paper

The phenomenon of magnetism is "mediated" by the magnetic field. An electric current or magnetic dipole creates a magnetic field, and that field, in turn, imparts magnetic forces on other particles that are in the fields.

Maxwell's equations, which simplify to the Biot-Savart law in the case of steady currents, describe the origin and behaviour of the fields that govern these forces. Therefore magnetism is seen whenever electrically charged particles are in motion---for example, from movement of electrons in an electric current, or in certain cases from the orbital motion of electrons around an atom's nucleus. They also arise from "intrinsic" magnetic dipoles arising from quantum-mechanical spin.

The same situations that create magnetic fields — charge moving in a current or in an atom, and intrinsic magnetic dipoles — are also the situations in which a magnetic field has an effect, creating a force. Following is the formula for moving charge; for the forces on an intrinsic dipole, see magnetic dipole.

When a charged particle moves through a magnetic field B, it feels a Lorentz force F given by the cross product:

\mathbf{F} = q (\mathbf{v} \times \mathbf{B})


q is the electric charge of the particle, and
v is the velocity vector of the particle

Because this is a cross product, the force is perpendicular to both the motion of the particle and the magnetic field. It follows that the magnetic force does no work on the particle; it may change the direction of the particle's movement, but it cannot cause it to speed up or slow down. The magnitude of the force is


where \theta is the angle between v and B.

One tool for determining the direction of the velocity vector of a moving charge, the magnetic field, and the force exerted is labeling the index finger "V", the middle finger "B", and the thumb "F" with your right hand. When making a gun-like configuration, with the middle finger crossing under the index finger, the fingers represent the velocity vector, magnetic field vector, and force vector, respectively. See also right hand rule.

Magnetic dipoles

A very common source of magnetic field shown in nature is a dipole, with a " South pole" and a " North pole", terms dating back to the use of magnets as compasses, interacting with the Earth's magnetic field to indicate North and South on the globe. Since opposite ends of magnets are attracted, the north pole of a magnet is attracted to the south pole of another magnet. The Earth's North Magnetic Pole (currently in the Arctic Ocean, north of Canada) is physically a south pole, as it attracts the north pole of a compass.

A magnetic field contains energy, and physical systems move toward configurations with lower energy. When diamagnetic material is placed in a magnetic field, a magnetic dipole tends to align itself in opposed polarity to that field, thereby lowering the net field strength. When ferromagnetic material is placed within a magnetic field, the magnetic dipoles align to the applied field, thus expanding the domain walls of the magnetic domains.

Magnetic monopoles

Since a bar magnet gets its ferromagnetism from electrons distributed evenly throughout the bar, when a bar magnet is cut in half, each of the resulting pieces is a smaller bar magnet. Even though a magnet is said to have a north pole and a south pole, these two poles cannot be separated from each other. A monopole — if such a thing exists — would be a new and fundamentally different kind of magnetic object. It would act as an isolated north pole, not attached to a south pole, or vice versa. Monopoles would carry "magnetic charge" analogous to electric charge. Despite systematic searches since 1931, as of 2010, they have never been observed, and could very well not exist.

Nevertheless, some theoretical physics models predict the existence of these magnetic monopoles. Paul Dirac observed in 1931 that, because electricity and magnetism show a certain symmetry, just as quantum theory predicts that individual positive or negative electric charges can be observed without the opposing charge, isolated South or North magnetic poles should be observable. Using quantum theory Dirac showed that if magnetic monopoles exist, then one could explain the quantization of electric charge---that is, why the observed elementary particles carry charges that are multiples of the charge of the electron.

Certain grand unified theories predict the existence of monopoles which, unlike elementary particles, are solitons (localized energy packets). The initial results of using these models to estimate the number of monopoles created in the big bang contradicted cosmological observations — the monopoles would have been so plentiful and massive that they would have long since halted the expansion of the universe. However, the idea of inflation (for which this problem served as a partial motivation) was successful in solving this problem, creating models in which monopoles existed but were rare enough to be consistent with current observations.

Quantum-mechanical origin of magnetism

In principle all kinds of magnetism originate (similar to Superconductivity) from specific quantum-mechanical phenomena (e.g. Mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics, in particular the chapters on spin and on the Pauli principle). A successful model was developed already in 1927, by Walter Heitler and Fritz London, who derived quantum-mechanically, how hydrogen molecules are formed from hydrogen atoms, i.e. from the atomic hydrogen orbitals  u_A and u_B centered at the nuclei A and B, see below. That this leads to magnetism, is not at all obvious, but will be explained in the following.

According the Heitler-London theory, so-called two-body molecular \sigma-orbitals are formed, namely the resulting orbital is:

\psi(\mathbf r_1,\,\,\mathbf r_2)=\frac{1}{\sqrt{2}}\,\,\left (u_A(\mathbf r_1)u_B(\mathbf r_2)+u_B(\mathbf r_1)u_A(\mathbf r_2)\right )

Here the last product means that a first electron, r1, is in an atomic hydrogen-orbital centered at the second nucleus, whereas the second electron runs around the first nucleus. This "exchange" phenomenon is an expression for the quantum-mechanical property that particles with identical properties cannot be distinguished. It is specific not only for the formation of chemical bonds, but as we will see, also for magnetism, i.e. in this connection the term exchange interaction arises, a term which is essential for the origin of magnetism, and which is stronger, roughly by factors 100 and even by 1000, than the energies arising from the electrodynamic dipole-dipole interaction.

As for the spin function \chi (s_1,s_2), which is responsible for the magnetism, we have the already mentioned Pauli's principle, namely that a symmetric orbital (i.e. with the + sign as above) must be multiplied with an antisymmetric spin function (i.e. with a - sign), and vice versa. Thus:

\chi (s_1,\,\,s_2)=\frac{1}{\sqrt{2}}\,\,\left (\alpha (s_1)\beta (s_2)-\beta (s_1)\alpha (s_2)\right ),

I.e., not only u_A and u_B must be substituted by α and β, respectively (the first entity means "spin up", the second one "spin down"), but also the sign + by the − sign, and finally ri by the discrete values si (= ±½); thereby we have \alpha(+1/2)=\beta(-1/2)=1 and \alpha(-1/2)=\beta(+1/2)=0. The " singlet state", i.e. the - sign, means: the spins are antiparallel, i.e. for the solid we have antiferromagnetism, and for two-atomic molecules one has diamagnetism. The tendency to form a (homoeopolar) chemical bond (this means: the formation of a symmetric molecular orbital, i.e. with the + sign) results through the Pauli principle automatically in an antisymmetric spin state (i.e. with the - sign). In contrast, the Coulomb repulsion of the electrons, i.e. the tendency that they try to avoid each other by this repulsion, would lead to an antisymmetric orbital function (i.e. with the - sign) of these two particles, and complementary to a symmetric spin function (i.e. with the + sign, one of the so-called " triplet functions"). Thus, now the spins would be parallel ( ferromagnetism in a solid, paramagnetism in two-atomic gases).

The last-mentioned tendency dominates in the metals iron, cobalt and nickel, and in some rare earths, which are ferromagnetic. Most of the other metals, where the first-mentioned tendency dominates, are nonmagnetic (e.g. sodium, aluminium, and magnesium) or antiferromagnetic (e.g. manganese). Diatomic gases are also almost exclusively diamagnetic, and not paramagnetic. However, the oxygen molecule, because of the involvement of π-orbitals, is an exception important for the life-sciences.

The Heitler-London considerations can be generalized to the Heisenberg model of magnetism (Heisenberg 1928).

The explanation of the phenomena is thus essentially based on all subtleties of quantum mechanics, whereas the electrodynamics covers mainly the phenomenology.

Units of electromagnetism

SI units related to magnetism

SI electromagnetism units
Symbol Name of Quantity Derived Units Conversion of International to SI base units
Electric current ampere (SI base unit) \mathrm{A=C\ s^{-1}}
Electric charge coulomb \mathrm{C=A\ s}
U,\ \Delta V,\ \Delta\phi,\ \Epsilon Potential difference; Electromotive force volt \mathrm{V=J\ C^{-1}=kg\ A^{-1}m^2s^{-3}}
R;\ \Zeta;\ \Chi Electric resistance; Impedance; Reactance ohm \mathrm{\Omega=V\ A^{-1}=kg\ m^{2} \ A^{-2}s^{-3}}
\ \rho Resistivity ohm metre \mathrm{\Omega\ m=kg\ A^{-2}m^3s^{-3}}
\ \Rho Electric power watt \mathrm{W=V\ A=kg\ m^2s^{-3}}
\ C Capacitance farad \mathrm{F=C\ V^{-1}=A^2kg^{-1}m^{-2}s^4}
\mathbf{\Epsilon} Electric field strength volt per metre \mathrm{V\ m^{-1}=C^{-1}N=kg\ A^{-1}m\ s^{-3}}
\mathbf{D} Electric displacement field Coulomb per square metre \mathrm{C\ m^{-2}=A\ m^{-2}s}
\varepsilon Permittivity farad per metre \mathrm{F\ m^{-1}=A^{2}kg^{-1}m^{-3}s^{4}}
\!\chi_e Electric susceptibility Dimensionless
\Beta;\ G;\ \Upsilon Conductance; Admittance; Susceptance siemens \ \mathrm{S=\Omega^{-1}=kg^{-1}A^2m^{-2}s^3}
\gamma,\ \kappa,\ \sigma Conductivity siemens per metre \mathrm{S\ m^{-1}=A^2kg^{-1}m^{-3}s^3}
\ \mathbf{B} Magnetic flux density, Magnetic induction tesla \mathrm{T=Wb\ m^{-2}=kg\ A^{-1}s^{-2}}
\ \Phi Magnetic flux weber \mathrm{Wb=V\ s=kg\ A^{-1}m^2s^{-2}}
\mathbf{H} Magnetic field strength ampere per metre \mathrm{A\ m^{-1}}
L,\ \Mu Inductance henry \mathrm{H=Wb\ A^{-1}=V\ A^{-1}s=kg\ A^{-2}m^2s^{-2}}
\ \mu Permeability henry per metre \mathrm{H m^{-1}=kg\ A^{-2}m\ s^{-2}}
\ \chi Magnetic susceptibility Dimensionless

Other units

  • gauss — The gauss is the centimeter-gram-second (CGS) unit of magnetic field (denoted B).
  • oersted — The oersted is the CGS unit of magnetizing field (denoted H).
  • maxwell — The maxwell is the CGS unit for magnetic flux.
  • gamma — is a unit of magnetic flux density that was commonly used before the tesla came into use (1.0 gamma = 1.0 nanotesla)
  • μ0 — common symbol for the permeability of free space (4π×10−7 newton/( ampere-turn)2).

Living things

Some organisms can detect magnetic fields, a phenomenon known as magnetoception. Magnetobiology studies magnetic fields as a medical treatment; fields naturally produced by an organism are known as biomagnetism.

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