A magnetic quadrupole

Magnetism is a class of physical phenomena that are mediated by magnetic fields. Electric currents and the magnetic moments of elementary particles give rise to a magnetic field, which acts on other currents and magnetic moments. The most familiar effects occur in ferromagnetic materials, which are strongly attracted by magnetic fields and can be magnetized to become permanent magnets, producing magnetic fields themselves. Only a few substances are ferromagnetic; the most common ones are iron, nickel and cobalt and their alloys. The prefix ferro- refers to iron, because permanent magnetism was first observed in lodestone, a form of natural iron ore called magnetite, Fe3O4.

Although ferromagnetism is responsible for most of the effects of magnetism encountered in everyday life, all other materials are influenced to some extent by a magnetic field, by several other types of magnetism. Paramagnetic substances such as aluminum and oxygen are weakly attracted to an applied magnetic field; diamagnetic substances such as copper and carbon are weakly repelled; while antiferromagnetic materials such as chromium and spin glasses have a more complex relationship with a magnetic field. The force of a magnet on paramagnetic, diamagnetic, and antiferromagnetic materials is usually too weak to be felt, and can be detected only by laboratory instruments, so in everyday life these substances are often described as non-magnetic.

The magnetic state (or magnetic phase) of a material depends on temperature and other variables such as pressure and the applied magnetic field. A material may exhibit more than one form of magnetism as these variables change.


Lodestone, a natural magnet, attracting iron nails. Ancient humans discovered the property of magnetism from lodestone.
An illustration from Gilbert's 1600 De Magnete showing one of the earliest methods of making a magnet. A blacksmith holds a piece of red-hot iron in a north-south direction and hammers it as it cools. The magnetic field of the Earth aligns the domains, leaving the iron a weak magnet.
Drawing of a medical treatment using magnetic brushes. Charles Jacque 1843, France.

Magnetism was first discovered in the ancient world, when people noticed that lodestones, naturally magnetized pieces of the mineral magnetite, could attract iron.[1] The word magnet comes from the Greek term μαγνῆτις λίθος magnētis lithos,[2] "the Magnesian stone,[3] lodestone." In ancient Greece, Aristotle attributed the first of what could be called a scientific discussion of magnetism to the philosopher Thales of Miletus, who lived from about 625 BC to about 545 BC.[4] The ancient Indian medical text Sushruta Samhita describes using magnetite to remove arrows embedded in a person's body.[5]

In ancient China, the earliest literary reference to magnetism lies in a 4th-century BC book named after its author, The Sage of Ghost Valley.[6] The 2nd-century BC annals, Lüshi Chunqiu, also notes: "The lodestone makes iron approach, or it attracts it."[7] The earliest mention of the attraction of a needle is in a 1st-century work Lunheng (Balanced Inquiries): "A lodestone attracts a needle."[8] The 11th-century Chinese scientist Shen Kuo was the first person to write – in the Dream Pool Essays – of the magnetic needle compass and that it improved the accuracy of navigation by employing the astronomical concept of true north. 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 Neckam, 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 compasses were discussed by Al-Ashraf, a Yemeni physicist, astronomer, and geographer.[9]

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 Ørsted, a professor at the University of Copenhagen, who discovered by the accidental twitching of a compass needle near a wire that an electric current could create a magnetic field. This landmark experiment is known as Ørsted'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 whom 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,[10] 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.

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