an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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towards James Clerk Maxwell: 1 – a bit about magnetism

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the terrell, or model globe, with which Gilbert conducted experiments

Canto: So what do you know about magnetism?

Jacinta: Well not a lot but I’m hoping to learn a lot. Some metals – but perhaps it’s only iron – appear to be attracted by other metals – or other bits of iron – so that they’re pulled together and are hard to pull apart, depending on the strength of the magnetism, which is apparently some kind of force. And I believe it’s related to electricity.

Canto: We shall learn more together. All this enquiry stems from a perhaps vague interest in James Clerk Maxwell, who famously connected electricity and magnetism in an equation, or a series of equations, or laws, with a great deal of mathematical sophistication, which I don’t have. Maxwell is hardly a household name in the way that Newton and Einstein are, but he’s undoubtedly revered among mathematical physicists. My own interest is twofold – I’d like to understand more about physics and maths in general, and – I’m Scottish, sort of. That is, I was born there and grew up among Scottish customs, though I’ve lived in Australia since I was five, and I always like to say that I haven’t a nationalist cell in my body. I’ve never waved a flag or sung any of those naff national anthems, and I have dual British/Australian citizenship only as a matter of convenience – and I suppose the more nations I could become a citizen of, the more convenient it would be. And yet. I’ve always felt ‘something extra’ in noting the Scottish contribution to the sciences and the life of the mind. James Hutton, Charles Lyell, James Watt, Adam Ferguson, David Hume and Adam Smith are names I’ve learned with a glimmer of unwonted or irrational pride over the years, though my knowledge of their achievements is in some cases very limited. And that limitation is perhaps most extreme in the case of Maxwell.

Jacinta: So we’ll get back to him later. There are good, easily available videos on all matters scientific these days, so I’ve looked at a few on magnetism, and have learned a few things. Magnetism apparently occurs when the atoms in a block of material are all aligned in the same direction, because atoms themselves are like tiny magnets, they’re polarised with a north and south pole, which I think has something to do with ionisation, maybe. Most materials have their atoms aligned in an infinity of orientations, with a net effect of no magnetism. Don’t quote me on that. The Earth itself is a gigantic magnet with a north and south pole. If it wasn’t, then the solar wind, which is a plasma of charged particles, would strip away the ozone that protects us from UV radiation. Because that field is sucked in at the poles, we see that plasma in the northern and southern latitudes, e.g. the northern lights. We now know that magnetism is essential to our existence – light itself is just a form of electromagnetic radiation (I think). But what we first learned about this stuff was pretty meagre. There were these rocks called lodestones, actually iron ore (magnetite), which attracted iron objects – swords and other tools of the iron age. What was this invisible force? It was named magnetism, after the region of Magnesia in what’s now modern Greece, where presumably lots of these lodestones were to be found. Early discoveries about magnetism showed that it could be useful in navigation…

Canto: But that wasn’t too early – there’s something of a gap between the discussions in Aristotle and Hippocrates and the 12th century realisation that a magnetic needle could be used for navigation. At least in Europe. The Chinese were well ahead in that regard. But I should stop here and say that if we’re going to arrive at Maxwell, it’s going to be a long, though undoubtedly fascinating road, with a few detours, and sometimes we might move ahead and turn back, and we’ll meet many brilliant characters along the way. And, who knows, we may never even arrive at Maxwell, and of course we shouldn’t assume that Maxwell is at the summit of all this.

Jacinta: So the first extant treatise on magnets was the Epistola de Magnete, by Petrus Peregrinus, aka Pete the Pilgrim, in 1269. It was described as a letter but it contained 13 chapters of weighty reading. The first 10 chapters apparently describe the laws of magnetism, a clear indication that such laws were already known. He describes magnetic induction, how magnetism can be induced in a piece of iron, such as a needle, by a lodestone. He writes about polarity, being the first to use the term ‘pole’ in this way – in writing at least. He noted that like poles repel and unlike poles attract, and he wrote of a south pole and a north pole. That’s to say, one end of a needle points north when given its head – for example when suspended in water. He also describes the ‘dry’ pivoted compass, which was clearly well in use by that time.

Canto: What he didn’t know was why a needle points north – actually magnetic north, which isn’t the same as the north pole – but close enough for most navigational purposes. He didn’t know that the Earth was a magnet.

Jacinta: On compass needles, there’s a neat essay online on how compasses are made. I’m not sure about how GPS is making compasses obsolete these days, but it’s a bit of a shame if it’s true…

Canto: So the next name, apart from the others, to associate with work on magnets was William Gilbert, who published De Magnete in 1600. This gathered together previous knowledge on the subject along with his own experimental work. One of the important things he noted, taken from the 1581 work The Newe Attractive, by Robert Norman, was magnetic inclination or dip, probably first noted by the Bavarian engineer and mathematician Georg Hartmann in the mid sixteenth century. This dip from the horizontal, either upward (steepest at the south pole) or downward (north pole) is a result of the Earth’s magnetic field, which doesn’t run parallel to the surface. Inspired by Norman’s work, Gilbert conducted experiments with a model Earth he made, concluding that the Earth was a magnet, and that its core, or centre, was made of iron…

Jacinta: Just how did he he work that out? Did he think that a bar magnet passed through the centre of the Earth from north to south pole?

Canto: I don’t think so, it’s probably more like he thought of Earth as a gigantic spherical lodestone with iron at its centre. It’s understandable that he would infer iron to be inside the Earth to make it magnetic, but he was the first to give a geocentric cause for the behaviour of compass needles – others had thought the attractive force was celestial. Interestingly, Gilbert was also a Copernican, in that he thought it absurd that the stars, which he believed to be vastly distant, revolved around the Earth. So he argued that the Earth turned, a view that got Galileo into so much trouble a few decades later.

Jacinta: Useful to be a Protestant in those times. Thank Dog for Henry VIII.

Canto: He also took an interest in what was later called electricity, though he didn’t consider it connected to magnetism. He built a versorium, the first electroscope, used to detect static electric charge. It was simply a metallic needle pivoted on a pedestal, like a compass needle but not magnetised. The needle would move towards a statically charged object, such as rubbed amber. In fact, Gilbert’s experiments strove to prove that static electricity was distinct from magnetism, which was an important development in early modern science.

Jacinta: I suppose we’re going to learn exactly what ‘static’ electricity is and how it fits in the over-all picture?

Canto: We shall try, though I shudder to think about what we’re embarking on here.

Jacinta: And I shudder to think about what cannot possibly be avoided – mathematics.

Canto: Well, yes, as we enter the 17th century, we’ll be encountering some great mathematical developments – with figures like Descartes, Pascal, Fermat, Liebniz and Newton all adding their weighty contributions to Galileo’s claim that nature is a book written in the language of mathematics.

Jacinta: Shit, I’m having a hard enough time trying to understand this stuff in English.

Canto: Hopefully it’ll be a great and rewarding adventure, and on the way we’ll learn about Coulomb’s inverse-square law, which is central to electrostatics. Meanwhile, it seems not much was added to our understanding of magnetism for a couple of hundred years, until Hans Ørsted’s more or less accidental discovery in 1819 that an electric current could create a magnetic field, by noting that a compass needle moved when placed near an electrified wire. Alessandro Volta had invented the voltaic pile, or battery, twenty years earlier, leading to a pile of electrical experiments in subsequent years.

Jacinta: But we’ll have to go back to the eighteenth century or beyond to trace developments in electricity before Ørsted’s finding brought the two fields together. And maybe we’ll look at the mathematics of
Charles-Augustin de Coulomb and others in the process. Let’s face it, we can’t progress towards Maxwell without doing so.

Canto: Tragic but true.

Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2019 at 1:37 pm

on electrickery, part 2 – the beginnings

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William Gilbert, author of De Magnete, 1600

Canto: So let’s now start at the beginning. What we now call electricity, or even electromagnetism, has been observed and questioned since antiquity. People would’ve wondered about lightning and electrostatic shocks and so forth.

Jacinta: And by an electrostatic shock, you mean the sort we get sometimes when we touch a metal door handle? How does that work, and why do we call it electrostatic?

Canto: Well we could do a whole post on static electricity, and maybe we should, but it happens when electrons – excess electrons if you like – move from your hand to the conductive metal. This is a kind of electrical discharge. For it to have happened you need to have built up electric charge in your body. Static electricity is charge that builds up through contact with clothing, carpet etc. It’s called static because it has nowhere to go unless it comes into contact with a positive conductor.

Jacinta: Yes and it’s more common on dry days, because water molecules in the atmosphere help to dissipate electrons, reducing the charge in your body.

Canto: So the action of your shoes when walking on carpet – and rubber soles are worst for this – creates a transfer of electrons, as does rubbing a plastic rod with wooden cloth. In fact amber, a plastic-like tree resin, was called ‘elektron’ in ancient Greek. It was noticed in those days that jewellery made from amber often stuck to clothing, like a magnet, causing much wonderment no doubt.

Jacinta: But there’s this idea of ‘earthing’, can you explain that?

Canto: It’s not an idea, it’s a thing. It’s also called grounding, though probably earthing is better because it refers to the physical/electrical properties of the Earth. I can’t go into too much detail on this, its complexity is way above my head, but generally earthing an electrical current means dissipating it for safety purposes – though the Earth can also be used as an electrical conductor, if a rather unreliable one. I won’t go any further as I’m sure to get it wrong if I haven’t already.

Jacinta: Okay, so looking at the ‘modern’ history of our understanding of electricity and magnetism, Elizabethan England might be a good place to start. In the 1570s mathematically minded seamen and navigators such as William Borough and Robert Norman were noting certain magnetic properties of the Earth, and Norman worked out a way of measuring magnetic inclination in 1581. That’s the angle made with the horizon, which can be positive or negative depending on position. It all has to do with the Earth’s magnetic field lines, which don’t run parallel to the surface. Norman’s work was a major inspiration for William Gilbert, physician to Elizabeth I and a tireless experimenter, who published De Magnete (On the Magnet – the short title) in 1600. He rightly concluded that the Earth was itself a magnet, and correctly proposed that it had an iron core. He was the first to use the term ‘electric force’, through studying the electrostatic properties of amber.

Canto: Yes, Gilbert’s work was a milestone in modern physics, greatly influencing Kepler and Galileo. He collected under one head just about everything that was known about magnetism at the time, though he considered it a separate phenomenon from electricity. Easier for me to talk in these historical terms than in physics terms, where I get lost in the complexities within a few sentences.

Jacinta: I know the feeling, but here’s a relatively simple explanation of earthing/grounding from a ‘physics stack exchange’ which I hope is accurate:

Grounding a charged rod means neutralizing that rod. If the rod contains excess positive charge, once grounded the electrons from the ground neutralize the positive charge on the rod. If the rod is having an excess of negative charge, the excess charge flows to the ground. So the ground behaves like an infinite reservoir of electrons.

So the ground’s a sink for electrons but also a source of them.

Canto: Okay, so if we go the historical route we should mention a Chinese savant of the 11th century, Shen Kuo, who wrote about magnetism, compasses and navigation. Chinese navigators were regularly using the lodestone in the 12th century. But moving into the European renaissance, the great mathematician and polymath Gerolamo Cardano can’t be passed by. He was one of the era’s true originals, and he wrote about electricity and magnetism in the mid-16th century, describing them as separate entities.

Jacinta: But William Gilbert’s experiments advanced our knowledge much further. He found that heat and moisture negatively affected the ‘electrification’ of materials, of which there were many besides amber. Still, progress in this era, when idle curiosity was frowned upon, was slow, and nothing much else happened in the field until the work of Otto von Guericke and Robert Boyle in the mid-17th century. They were both interested particularly in the properties, electrical and otherwise, of vacuums.

Canto: But the electrical properties of vacuum tubes weren’t really explored until well into the 18th century. Certain practical developments had occurred though. The ‘electrostatic machine’ was first developed, in primitive form, by von Guericke, and improved throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but they were often seen as little more than a sparky curiosity. There were some theoretical postulations about electrics and non-electrics, including a duel-fluid theory, all of which anticipated the concept of conductors and insulators. Breakthroughs occurred in the 1740s with the invention of the Leyden Jar, and with experiments in electrical signalling. For example, an ingenious experiment of 1746, conducted by Jean-Antoine Nollet, which connected 200 monks by wires to form a 1.6 kilometre circle, showed that the speed of electrical transmission was very high! Experiments in ‘electrotherapy’ were also carried out on plants, with mixed results.

Jacinta: And in the US, from around this time, Benjamin Franklin carried out his experiments with lightning and kites, and he’s generally credited with the idea of positive to negative electrical flow, though theories of what electricity actually is remained vague. But it seems that Franklin’s fame provided impetus to the field. Franklin’s experiments connected lightning and electricity once and for all, though similar work, both experimental and theoretical, was being conducted in France, England and elsewhere.

Canto: Yes, there’s a giant roll-call of eighteenth century researchers and investigators – among them Luigi Galvani, Jean Jallabert, John Canton, Ebenezer Kinnersley, Giovanni Beccaria, Joseph Priestley, Mathias Bose, Franz Aepinus, Henry Cavendish, Charles-Augustin Coulomb and Alessandro Volta, who progressed our understanding of electrical and magnetic phenomena, so that modern concepts like electric potential, charge, capacitance, current and the like, were being formalised by the end of that century.

Jacinta: Yes, for example Coulomb discovered, or published, a very important inverse-square law in 1784, which I don’t have the wherewithal to put here mathematically, but it states that:

The magnitude of the electrostatic force of attraction between two point charges is directly proportional to the product of the magnitudes of charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

This law was an essential first step in the theory of electromagnetism, and it was anticipated by other researchers, including Priestley, Aepinus and Cavendish.

get it?

Canto: And Volta produced the first electric battery, which he demonstrated before Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century.

Jacinta: And of course this led to further experimentation – almost impossible to trace the different pathways and directions opened up. In England, Humphrey Davy and later Faraday conducted experiments in electrochemistry, and Davy invented the first form of electric light in 1809. Scientists, mathematicians, experimenters and inventors of the early nineteenth century who made valuable contributions include Hans Christian Orsted, Andre-Marie Ampere, Georg Simon Ohm and Joseph Henry, though there were many others. Probably the most important experimenter of the period, in both electricity and magnetism, was Michael Faraday, though his knowledge of mathematics was very limited. It was James Clerk Maxwell, one of the century’s most gifted mathematicians, who was able to use Faraday’s findings into mathematical equations, and more importantly, to conceive of the relationship between electricity, magnetism and light in a profoundly different way, to some extent anticipating the work of Einstein.

Canto: And we should leave it there, because we really hardly know what we’re talking about.

Jacinta: Too right – my reading up on this stuff brings my own ignorance to mind with the force of a very large electrostatic discharge….

now try these..

Written by stewart henderson

October 22, 2017 at 10:09 am