The Wonder of Magnetism

One of the things that beginning chemistry students run into very early in their studies is the fact that magnetism plays a key role in the way in which electrons and atoms work. I remember one of my favorite students who always whined about what we were doing and complained when we talked about paired electrons and their dependence on magnetism saying "Why does chemistry have to be so terribly complicated? I could function very nicely without magnetism, thank you." My response was that not only could he not function without magnetism, but he could not exist without magnetism.

Most of us are aware of magnetism in only a vague way. We know that magnets hold things to our refrigerators, and we are familiar with magnetic compasses. We have some awareness that the earth has a magnetic field although we do not know what it does or how it does it. The fact is that, without magnetism, we would not exist. In addition to that, a great deal of what allows us to live as we do depends upon magnetism. Our TV sets operate by a magnet moving electron beams across the screen. Much of the storage of information in our computers and VCRs is done with magnets. Many switches in things like our washing machines work on magnetic principles.

The earth's magnetism is far more vital to us than most people understand. As charged particles come toward the earth from the sun and other objects in space, they are deflected away from the earth by the earth's magnetic field. Without this protective shield radiation would be so high on the surface of the earth that life would have a very hard time surviving. We are now aware that magnetism is an active force in living things. Many animals migrate from one geographic area to another using the earth's magnetic field as a guide. We have even found that tiny magnets inside our bodies can be used to see things that are invisible to X-rays and ultrasound, making the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) a new tool available to modern science.

The reason all of this works is because of the design of the electron. Electrons possess a magnetic field. Each electron has a north and a south end caused by the electron's spin. We do not know exactly how this works, but we do know that for chemical reactions to take place electrons have to have their magnetic field in a certain alignment. Two electrons as arranged in figure A will not form a chemical bond; but in figure B, the alignment will allow a stable bond to develop. This magnetic property of electrons controls all chemical reactions and makes a variety of other chemical processes possible. If an electron had all of its electrons paired up magnetically, all of its energy fields filling the atom would be totally stable. Elements that have that arrangement are called inert, and examples of such materials are helium, neon, argon, krypton, and xenon. It was always interesting to me that superman was allergic to an inert gas (krypton).

In some materials there are large numbers of unpaired electrons. The energy of unpaired electrons allows these elements to be very active, and mankind has used these materials for a variety of special purposes. Atoms strive to have all magnetic fields balanced and closed--this is the basis of modern chemistry. When electrons flow through a wire, their alignment as they pass through the wire causes the magnetic fields to add and grow. This is the basis of the electromagnet, and a similar process is believed to generate the earth's magnetic field which protects us.

The design of the atom and the way that magnetism is built into elements allows life to exist, matter to exist, and a protective system to exist that sustains that life. The complexity of this system tells us that chance is not the guiding mechanism. There is intelligence and purpose in the system and this is what allows the system to work. Design demands a designer that has created the basic building blocks of the cosmos in such a way that the system functions year after year speaks eloquently of the wisdom and power of its creator.

--John N. Clayton

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