Three Words That Could Overthrow Physics: “What Is Magnetism?”

By | November 2, 2009

Three Words That Could Overthrow Physics What Is Magnetism

… as Isaac Newton pointed out in his Principia, the notion “that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophic matters a competent faculty of thinking could ever fall into it.”

Me neither. But it would appear that guys like Einstein, Newton, and myself —guys who see Thing A controlling Thing B at a distance and wonder about it—are all of a sudden rather thin on the ground. You see, at the end of last year, while vacationing with my family at an undisclosed rural location, I found myself reclining by a fireplace with a book titled Electronics for Dummies by Gordon McComb and Earl Boysen.

On page 10 of that volume, I read that electrons repelled each other without touching, in the same way that two magnets will if you align them with their like poles facing. At this point, realizing that I must have either slept through or forgotten the high school physics class where it was explained how magnets manage that singular feat of interacting with each other at a distance, I set out on what I assumed would be a minutes-long odyssey to understand the phenomenon. Seventy-one days later, I am here with astonishing findings.

For one thing, as far as I can tell, nobody knows how a magnet can move a piece of metal without touching it. And for another—more astonishing still, perhaps—nobody seems to care.

… When you get right down to it, the mystery of magnets interacting with each other at a distance has been explained in terms of virtual photons, incredibly small and unapologetically imaginary particles interacting with each other at a distance. As far as I can tell, these virtual particles are composed entirely of math and exist solely to fill otherwise embarrassing gaps in physics, such as the attraction and repulsion between magnets. And as far as I can tell, because I’ve had it repeatedly and rather pityingly told to me, to want to pursue the matter any further is an impulse that marks its sufferer out as a man who doesn’t know an awful lot about physics, or science, or the pursuit of truth in general.

via Three Words That Could Overthrow Physics: “What Is Magnetism?” | Subatomic Particles | DISCOVER Magazine.

Leave a Reply