Einstein 1938: The Magnetic Fluids

Reference: Evolution of Physics

This paper presents Chapter II, section 2 from the book THE EVOLUTION OF PHYSICS by A. EINSTEIN and L. INFELD. The contents are from the original publication of this book by Simon and Schuster, New York (1942).

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


The Magnetic Fluids

We shall proceed here in the same manner as before, starting with very simple facts and then seeking their theoretical explanation.

1. We have two long bar magnets, one suspended freely at its centre, the other held in the hand. The ends of the two magnets are brought together in such a way that a strong attraction is noticed between them. This can always be done. If no attraction results, we must turn the magnet and try the other end. Something will happen if the bars are magnetized at all. The ends of the magnets are called their poles. To continue with the experiment we move the pole of the magnet held in the hand along the other magnet. A decrease in the attraction is noticed and when the pole reaches the middle of the suspended magnet there is no evidence of any force at all. If the pole is moved farther in the same direction a repulsion is observed, attaining its greatest strength at the second pole of the hanging magnet.

2. The above experiment suggests another. Each magnet has two poles. Can we not isolate one of them? The idea is very simple: just break a magnet into two equal parts. We have seen that there is no force between the pole of one magnet and the middle of the other. But the result of actually breaking a magnet is surprising and unexpected. If we repeat the experiment described under 1, with only half a magnet suspended, the results are exactly the same as before! Where there was no trace of magnetic force previously, there is now a strong pole.

How are these facts to be explained? We can attempt to pattern a theory of magnetism after the theory of electric fluids. This is suggested by the fact that here, as in electrostatic phenomena, we have attraction and repulsion. Imagine two spherical conductors possessing equal charges, one positive and the other negative. Here “equal” means having the same absolute value; + 5 and 5, for example, have the same absolute value. Let us assume that these spheres are connected by means of an insulator such as a glass rod. Schematically this arrangement can be represented by an arrow directed from the negatively charged conductor to the positive one. We shall call the whole thing an electric dipole. It is clear that two such dipoles would behave exactly like the bar magnets in experiment 1. If we think of our invention as a model for a real magnet, we may say, assuming the existence of magnetic fluids, that a magnet is nothing but a magnet dipole, having at its ends two fluids of different kinds. This simple theory, imitating the theory of electricity, is adequate for an explanation of the first experiment. There would be attraction at one end, repulsion at the other, and a balancing of equal and opposite forces in the middle. But what of the second experiment? By breaking the glass rod in the case of the electric dipole we get two isolated poles. The same ought to hold good for the iron bar of the magnetic dipole, contrary to the results of the second experiment. Thus this contradiction forces us to introduce a somewhat more subtle theory. Instead of our previous model we may imagine that the magnet consists of very small elementary magnetic dipoles which cannot be broken into separate poles. Order reigns in the magnet as a whole, for all the elementary dipoles are directed in the same way. We see immediately why cutting a magnet causes two new poles to appear on the new ends, and why this more refined theory explains the facts of experiment 1 as well as 2.

The magnet is not made up of two magnetic fluids that neutralize each other.

For many facts, the simpler theory gives an explanation and the refinement seems unnecessary. Let us take an example: We know that a magnet attracts pieces of iron. Why? In a piece of ordinary iron the two magnetic fluids are mixed, so that no net effect results. Bringing a positive pole near acts as a “command of division” to the fluids, attracting the negative fluid of the iron and repelling the positive. The attraction between iron and magnet follows. If the magnet is removed, the fluids go back to more or less their original state, depending on the extent to which they remember the commanding voice of the external force.

The magnetic fluids are mixed in the iron, but they manage to separate themselves in the presence of a magnet.

Little need be said about the quantitative side of the problem. With two very long magnetized rods we could investigate the attraction (or repulsion) of their poles when brought near one another. The effect of the other ends of the rods is negligible if the rods are long enough. How does the attraction or repulsion depend on the distance between the poles? The answer given by Coulomb’s experiment is that this dependence on distance is the same as in Newton’s law of gravitation and Coulomb’s law of electrostatics.

The dependence on distance in magnetic attraction (or repulsion) is the same as in Newton’s law of gravitation and Coulomb’s law of electrostatics.

We see again in this theory the application of a general point of view: the tendency to describe all phenomena by means of attractive and repulsive forces depending only on distance and acting between unchangeable particles.

This is the “particle and void” framework.

One well-known fact should be mentioned, for later we shall make use of it. The earth is a great magnetic dipole. There is not the slightest trace of an explanation as to why this is true. The North Pole is approximately the minus (-) and the South Pole the plus (+) magnetic pole of the earth. The names plus and minus are only a matter of convention, but when once fixed, enable us to designate poles in any other case. A magnetic needle supported on a vertical axis obeys the command of the magnetic force of the earth. It directs its (+) pole toward the North Pole, that is, toward the (-) magnetic pole of the earth.

Earth is a magnetic dipole.

Although we can consistently carry out the mechanical view in the domain of electric and magnetic phenomena introduced here, there is no reason to be particularly proud or pleased about it. Some features of the theory are certainly unsatisfactory if not discouraging. New kinds of substances had to be invented: two electric fluids and the elementary magnetic dipoles. The wealth of substances begins to be overwhelming!

In heat, electricity and magnetism we are looking at new substances.

The forces are simple. They are expressible in a similar way for gravitational, electric, and magnetic forces. But the price paid for this simplicity is high: the introduction of new weightless substances. These are rather artificial concepts, and quite unrelated to the fundamental substance, mass.

These weightless “substances” are somehow related to the fundamental substance of mass.



Electric and magnetic phenomena are closely related as covered later.


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