Magnets – how do they work?

During TAM London 2010, the infamous Insane Clown Posse Miracles video was given as an example of an anti science manifesto. The catchphrase about magnets became quite popular among the conference delegates, as an example of stupidity.  However, I didn’t think that the phrase, or rather, the question itself is stupid.  We know that magnets repel or attract each other by the means of “magnetic forces”, but the explanation usually stops at the magnetic field, which is explained as “magnetic field means that if certain objects are placed within the magnetic field, there’s a force exerted on them”.  To my liking, that’s hardly satisfying.

It turns out, that the topic of magnetic force and ways of explaining it has already been discussed by Richard Feynman in an interview.

Feynman asks the interviewer “What do you mean when you ask ‘why?’”, and proceeds talking about various kinds of explanation that can be given.  Explanations need to be given using terms that the audience either already understands, or accepts as a satisfying without actual understanding.  The framework which allows to answer the “How do magnets work?” question, is utterly unfamiliar to lay audience, and cannot be used.  Analogies could potentially help, but there’s a problem.  Concepts within that framework are so different from anything that the audience is familiar with, that invoking analogies will be more confusing and misleading than helpful.

The question about workings of magnets is not as easy to answer as it seems.

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