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F-ing Magnets—How do THEY Work?

The hip hop band Insane Clown Posse created an interesting meme with its 2010 song “Miracles.”

Well, not so much interesting as bizarre. Here’s a bowdlerized version of the verses in question:

Water, fire, air and dirt.
F**kin’ magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist.
Y’all motherf**kers lying and getting me pissed.

You really want to know how magnets work? Here you go:

These are Maxwell’s equations, the foundation of our understanding of electricity and magnetism. They were published in 1865. A deep understanding would obviously take some effort, but the point is that this question is no mystery to science.

The song’s not all bad, but it wanders from justifiable wonder at nature (“Oceans spanning beyond my sight / And a million stars way above ’em at night”) to conflating wonder with ignorance.

Saturday Night Live did an excellent parody video. The lyrics in their song “Magical Mysteries” include, “Where does the sun hide at night? / Did people really used to live in black and white?” which isn’t too far from denying our knowledge about magnets.

Maybe Bill O’Reilly is a Juggalo (a fan of Insane Clown Posse) because he has sounded a lot like them. In a 2011 interview with David Silverman, president of American Atheists, O’Reilly said, “I’ll tell you why [religion is] not a scam, in my opinion. Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that.”

(Or you could just look it up in Wikipedia.)

And were there no consequences to O’Reilly for being this confused about reality? He’s been lampooned for these statements (and a later defense, which was equally ridiculous) by people who weren’t his fans to begin with. But doesn’t his fan base care about reality? Can they possibly cheer on this willful ignorance?

Despite the contrary opinions of O’Reilly and Insane Clown Posse, learning about how things work can make them more amazing. Actually understanding how magnets work doesn’t ruin the magic trick, it turns mysterious into marvelous.

Here’s an experiment: go outside on a clear night. Hold out your hand, arm extended, and look at the nail of your little finger. That fingernail is covering a million galaxies. Not a million stars, a million galaxies. Each galaxy has roughly 100 billion stars. That’s 100,000,000,000,000,000 stars under just one fingernail. Now see how vast the sphere of space is compared to that one tiny patch.

And how does the Bible treat this inconceivable vastness? “[God] also made the stars” (Gen. 1:16). That’s it.

The god of the Old Testament is little more than a dictator with the wisdom of Solomon, the generalship of Alexander, and the physical strength of Hercules. But science gives you the vastness of the universe, the energy of a supernova, the bizarreness of quantum physics, and the complexity of the human body. The writers of the Bible were constrained by their imagination, and it shows. There is so much out there that they couldn’t begin to imagine. If you want wonder, discard the Bible and open a science book.

And this is not groundless myth, it’s science—the discipline that makes possible your reading this across the Internet, on a computer, powered by electricity (and governed by Maxwell’s equations).

Carl Sagan said, “We are star stuff” to suggest that we are literally made from the remnants of stars. Two adjoining carbon atoms in a molecule in your body might have come from different exploding stars. Science gives us this insight, not religion.

Second-century Christian author Tertullian is credited with the maxim, credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd). In other words, no one could make this stuff up.

If you believe things either in spite of evidence to the contrary or because of it, science may not for you. But if you want to understand reality to the best of humanity’s ability, rely on science. C’mon in—the water’s fine!

Science does not make it impossible to believe in God, 
but it does make it possible to not believe in God.
— Steve Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics

Photo credit: mutantMandias

About Bob Seidensticker

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