Static magnetism - The believable untruth

The latest Ri Channel video claimed that you can charge any battery with static magnetism, discovered 150 years ago by Michael Faraday. Here's why it's nonsense.

Those of you who have seen this latest offering on the Ri Channel might have spent a frustrated morning trying to magnetise your phone. More likely, with one eye on your calendar, you started to smell a rat, and well you might have. I mean, where to start?

Firstly, the whole idea of a new phenomenon, ‘static magnetism’, is a bit bonkers. We already have static magnetism, which we just call... magnetism, and of course the remarkable effect seen in the video was created by the ingenious (?) use of an actual magnet.

I could go through the explanation and point out the bits that don't make sense, but the concise summary is: all of it - it's just lots of vaguely physics-y sounding phrases incoherently strung together.

In a way this is a bit like a language. It’s fairly easy to make up French, German or Chinese that sounds genuine to a non-speaker of the language, but to the ears of a native speaker it would sound like a meaningless babble. Take a listen to this song from the 1970s written by an Italian, that sounds quite like English, but is in fact complete gibberish.

Likewise, someone conversant with the grammar and syntax of physics would immediately see that the explanation in the video is all nonsense, even if the only comment they could really make would be to say "it just doesn't work like that" over and over again.

And that’s the thing – understanding physics, or anything, and being able to separate sense from nonsense requires a learned framework of things which are just accepted to be true. Without that framework all bets are off; even to Isaac Newton, around hundreds of years before Faraday’s genuine discoveries about electromagnetism, this video would have made no more or less sense than a genuine video about electromagnetic induction.

Having said that, the case of Dr Fox shows that even experts can be fooled by a confident and authoritative sounding delivery. I don't think my slow paced attempt is quite up there in that category though! Hopefully, by watching more Royal Institution videos with genuine science in them, more people will gain a better ability to decipher the cod science from the real deal.

Some of the comments below the line seemed to suggest that we did trick some of you. For example

I want to try it, but I'm afraid for my phone.

I'm sure the cell phone service providers will be getting a lot of calls about this. Just imagine all the dumb asses who build a static potential on their cell phones, causing a static discharge internally between sensitive electronics, and wonder why their new magnet no longer works as a cell phone (I do hope all those wedding and baby photos are backed up)

But we were also delighted to see others playing along, and coming up with their own riffs on the joke:

You can also do this with a macbook laptop, they also have the lithium ion batteries. At Notts we made a small MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine as part of a project with several laptops, but you have to make sure they are all aligned in the same direction. 

Static magnetism is so passé. We're already into dynamic magnetism which is what wireless microwave ovens use. Dynamic magnetism powers our oven's magnetron which produces microwaves that wirelessly charges your iPhone.

Gosh, I tried it and now my hand is magnetic.. not sure what I did wrong.

And for the genuine scientific explanation of how magnets work? A journalist once asked Richard Feynman, one of the most thoughtful communicators of physics, what the deal was with magnets and he concluded his reply by saying

I really can't do a good job, or any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms of something you're more familiar with, because I don't understand it in terms of anything you're more familiar with

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