Magnetic Movie

By Phil Plait | July 9, 2008 10:53 am

You are immersed in magnetic fields right now. Your computer, your house, your office, your street, your TV, your iPod… they all have magnetic fields around them, and you are embedded in them as well.

The Earth’s field surrounds all of us, and that interacts with the Sun’s field, which goes out and touches Mars. For billions more miles beyond that, the Sun reaches out, and that has effects that can be measured.

But now you can see them. Magnetic Movie, created by the company Semiconductor Films and filmed at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratories, uses animations based on magnetic measurements to visualize these fields. The result is a beautiful and yet very eerie — and sometimes downright creepy — movie depicting how these fields interact.

Magnetic Movie from Semiconductor on Vimeo.

Magnetic fields are incredibly difficult to model and understand. I had to take a crash course when I was writing the chapter about solar flares in my book Death from the Skies!, and it was the hardest part of the whole writing process. I relied heavily on my friend (and genius) Craig DeForest, a solar astrophysicist here in Boulder at Southwest Research Institute. He schooled me multiple times on the ridiculous complexity of the solar magnetic field. The magnetic animation movie would have helped me a lot in understanding how this stuff works.

Tip o’ the Faraday cage to BABloggee Rene Maggio.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Science, Video Blog

Comments (47)

Links to this Post

  1. Magically magnetic. « Communion Of Dreams | July 11, 2008
  1. Pop

    Based onthe woman’s description of how magnetic fields look, I saw my presonal magnetic field this morning. I was standing in front of a mirror while toweling myself off after a shower. I must say, at my age (decrepit) the magnetic field was not very large.

  2. Monkey

    This feels so good after just re-watching p&T’s BULLSH*T series on “magnetic vectors” in Sonoma last night!! IF only the whackos had imagery like this, they would sell much more!!


  3. madge

    I saw this a few weeks ago and loved it. Every time I get an electric shock from my daughter or the car (both of which happen alot!) or see the aurora borealis or look at sun spots or hear white noise on my radio or TV I will think of this :)

  4. I read about this a month or so ago. My understanding is that although the footage was shot in the labs and those are real scientists discussing their real work, the magnetic field images are purely artistic and not based on any actual measurements.

  5. Didn’t quite know what to make of this film. It was fascinating to watch, but I think I’d have to watch it a few more times to get all of it straight.

    @madge (sorry, off topic) – any news on the BBC4 LHC special? Has it been postponed?

  6. Tim G

    We are taught in high school that a current (moving charges) generates a magnetic field. What if you are moving at the same speed and direction as the charges? Would you not experience a magnetic field?

  7. Pop

    Hey Tim G, would that be AC or DC? If you can move at 70% to 99% speed of C, then you can take a quick measure and let us know?

  8. Celtic_Evolution

    @ Alex Whiteside

    images are purely artistic = quite true.
    images are not based on any actual measuements = somewhat false.

    As I understand it, the visual animations of the magnetic fields depicted are based on theoretical modeling of known magnetic field currents. The animations are based on collected data, although they may not really represent actual magnetic currents produced by the objects they are bound to in this movie. That part is more of an “artistic license” on the film-makers part. As the movie’s website states: “Magnetic Movie is the aquavit, something not precisely scientific but grants us an uncanny experience of geophysical and cosmological forces.”

  9. Tim G, you would see an electric field.

  10. Great Flying Spaghetti Monster, it’s the ID MONSTER!



  11. Reminded me of the japanese scary movie with Sarah Michelle Geller. Even sounded like it.

  12. Jose

    This film gave me a great idea. What if we placed some magnets around a ball of wire, and then we spin the ball of wire? Why, we could produce electricity! We’ll call it the electro-generomiter.

  13. Uh oh… like a magnet attracts iron, this post will attract Electric Universe sycophants.

  14. That was pretty awesome! Gave me the heebie-jeebies though – those sound effects!

  15. Xerxes

    This is pop science of the worst kind. It completely obscures the reality of the science in question.

    The voice-overs are clearly interviews with expert scientists. Every word of the audio is rock-solid.

    But the animations (while admittedly quite beautiful and superficially similar to solar prominences) have nothing to do with what the experts are saying. They have no relation to any physical effect. They are not the field lines of any magnetic fields that would be present in the setting shown. They do not correspond to any phenomena that the experts are discussing. The colors introduced later on have no correspondence to any physical property. And I can’t figure at all what the nebulous transparent green blobby things at the end are supposed to be.

    Such a presentation must be immensely confusing to a novice or a layperson. This should clearly be labeled and understood as ART and not science.

  16. KC

    And this is one reason why we assume a solenoid of infinite length . . .

    This animation is way cool. It would be way cooler if we could rig up a chamber to do something like this for real. Or has that already been done yet?

  17. Quiet Desperation

    Science is not creepy! For shame, Phil!


  18. Nicole

    I’m not sure if I fully grasp the picture of the “open field” lines from the sun at the beginning. Surely, a magnetic field line has to close somewhere? Those lines clearly ended as the tip “reached out.”

  19. Sili

    Tim G,

    That’s a very good question. In fact it’s that exact question that lead Einstein to formulate Special Relativity!

  20. xav0971

    The movie was pretty cool but when he said “the electron knows what the magnetic field is doing.” I hate when people say that, it gives some people the wrong idea. The electron has no intelligence and is not self-aware. It is only being forced to go a particular way because the field. A friend of mine thinks that every thing is intelligent when he hears statements like that. He sometimes doesnt realize that it’s a figure of speech. My friend isn’t the brightest person but still I hate arguing with him

  21. Celtic_Evolution

    @ Xerxes –

    I hear what you’re saying… but let me ask you… did you go the the movie’s website that Phil linked to?

    I didn’t come away from reading it feeling like they mis-represented anything… and I already quoted above from that site how they state that the movie is “not precisely scientific”. I’m okay with it having an understanding of its artistic license.

  22. Dumb Guy

    I want some popcorn.

  23. Holy hell! Wildly enjoyed and I might have learned science in the process, but I’ll have to get back to you on that.

    Stick Doctor Who in the middle of that and you have a whole episode.

    Very cool, but also frightening. It is going to be an interesting day of swinging baseball bats at sadly invisible fields. And in this weather, I don’t know how I’ll stand wearing my tin-foil hat out and about.

  24. Doc

    I believe many (most?) of the sounds in the movie were natural (VLF) radio sounds – also known as ‘spherics (from “atmospheric”).

    See for more info – it’s neat stuff.

  25. Xerxes

    @Celtic Evolution –

    You’re right. Their website does accurately describe the audio as the part that’s real. They don’t explicitly state that the animations are pure fantasy, but they don’t say it’s supposed to represent any real science either.

    So wag-of-the-finger to BA for for saying it “uses animations based on magnetic measurements to visualize these fields”. It doesn’t!

  26. AJWM

    Very pretty, but WTF? The dancing lines had nothing whatsoever to do with the clear sources of EM fields in the pictures (wiring, lights, etc) nor were they influenced by any of the ferromagnetic stuff (eg the large toolbox) around.

    Utterly useless at visualizing anything, except perhaps the artist’s imagination. The soundtrack was cool, but it didn’t fit the visuals (except occasionally).

    Using this to get an understanding of magnetics is like watching Coyote/Roadrunner cartoons to get an understanding of Newtonian physics.

  27. I’m glad several people have stated that this is inaccurate because I was having a hard time understanding what was being shown to me. I now realise that what I was watching was more “Electric Sheep screen saver” than “Equinoxe”…

  28. That’s TOTALLY spooky and awesome. I didn’t know field lines could just be sticking out into space without closing on something: all the diagrams I’ve seen in text books are always composed of neat (if wavy) bunches of lines that leave a planet/magnet at one pole and loop gracefully to the other pole. 😛

  29. Tim G Says: “What if you are moving at the same speed and direction as the charges? Would you not experience a magnetic field?”

    You’re in good company, Tim. That’s exactly the question that Einstein asked himself that lead to Relativity Theory. Keep going!

    – Jack

  30. Oops. I see that Sili has already said that.

    – Jack

  31. The lady scientist says that “the sun’s magnetic field hairball gets messier and messier.” So the sun is now a Messier object?

    – Jack

  32. Wayne

    Actually, magnetic field lines are always closed, it’s just when they don’t close onto the same object they are often referred to as “open” and they are usually truncated so that you don’t have to show them going off to infinity. That actually bothered me a bit in the video, but it’s fairly common to see in drawings and models.

  33. May not attract the Electric Universe people but it may be more grist for the mill for the electro sensitives – they’re the ones that want to ban things like wi-fi because they have “allergies” to electronic fields.

  34. Cindy

    Hmm, don’t know if this would help my students visualize magnetic fields or confuse them more.

  35. madge

    @ Mike Torr
    I got the original date for Big Bang Night from Sky at Night magazine. I just checked BBC4 schedule and there is nothing listed for July 13th. I will keep checking and post on this blog as soon as I get a confirmed date.

  36. Brian

    I had quite a hard time with electromagnetic fields in college physics — it all seemed so nonintuitive. I suspect a movie like this would have helped, by giving me a set of visual “symbols” for representing these things in my mind. And it would have also helped me to keep in mind the highly dynamic nature of real fields — a nice counterpoint to the artificially static fields that we constantly dealt with in our entry-level problem sets.

  37. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    That actually bothered me a bit in the video, but it’s fairly common to see in drawings and models.

    Thanks, I had forgotten about that practice as well. One of Maxwell’s equations states that explicitly.

    (That the divergence of the magnetic field is zero, i.e. there can’t be field lines starting or stopping in, diverging from, a volume. Or in other words, there are no magnetic charges that magnetic field can start and end on.)

    So the truncated lines either matched other truncated lines from the same volume of space, or went off to infinity. Confusing; but OTOH the movie gets the complexity of some fields down pat. Don’t you just hate the nice idealized pictures of permanent magnets fields?

    In fact it’s that exact question that lead Einstein to formulate Special Relativity!

    Even more interesting, that velocity dependence shows why magnetism is our everyday low velocity relativity effect. If it had shown up as radiation all by itself (acceleration instead of velocity effect), it had been an effect of a fundamental force. (Say, like photon pressure.)

    But instead you can derive the magnetic Lorentz force from the electric field and relativity.

    Kind of, I guess, how in general relativity gravity isn’t a regular force, but the spacetime curvature particles like to follow. Einstein put the finger on what is fundamental (invariant) laws and what is perceived outcomes.

  38. madge

    @ Mike Torr
    Just had a thought about Big Bang Night on BBC4. According to Sky at Night magazine it’s due to air on July 13th but looking at the schedule that is bogus. I will try to go on Gia’s blog as one of the programmes being shown is The Big Bang Machine, an hour long documentary about CERN fronted by Mr Gia Dr Brian (swoon) Cox. So she might know more. If you are reading this Gia could you give us a heads up here?

  39. Wow this is from Channel 4, a British company

  40. Oh, hold on! Perhaps Sticks has the answer: is it Channel 4, as opposed to BBC4? They are different things :)

    Thanks for the help, madge. I’m grateful that you saw my queries!

    Is it fair to say that magnetic field lines are always closed in the same way that map contours and isobars are always closed, and for the same reasons? I’m guessing that the use of /lines/ to show magnetic fields in 3 dimensions is a convenience for us, and in reality, they should be /surfaces/ of equal… er… field strength, I guess(?)

  41. Nope, I checked the schedules. If it’s Channel 4, it’s not on 13th July. :(

  42. David Vanderschel

    As I watched the film, I was comprehending the narration; but I was baffled by what, precisely, the animations were supposed to be representing in the apparent context. In the absence of any explanation of the import of the graphics themselves, I came away with a reaction much as Xerxes has expressed. However, I would not have been sufficiently confident to express the reaction as forcefully as he has. His confidence has enabled me to put my baffled state aside.

  43. madge

    @ Mike Torr
    Gia says they haven’t been given a date for Big bang Night yet, but her guess is that it will be aired late August or Early September, Makes sense as that will be around the time the power up of LHC begins. Thanks Gia!

  44. Thanks madge, and Gia – that makes a lot of sense. I don’t have a TV so I have to ask my parents to video this for me. I didn’t want to miss out!

  45. solar girl

    @ Mike Torr
    You’re thinking of contours of magnetic field strength, which would be surfaces in 3D, you’re right. Magnetic fieldlines are different though. At each point in space, the magnetic fieldline points in the direction of the magnetic field vector. In the solar corona, the magnetic field is the dominant force and so the charged particles of the plasma are constrained to travel along the magnetic fieldlines. So the fieldlines show the paths the particles would travel along.

  46. Nova Kid

    Wow! So great to find this site! I just saw the magnet movie and had the same question; is this animation or an actual “reading” of the magnetic fields?

    Wouldn’t Tesla have loved this imagery! I often think about what he could do with the technology we have today…but it’s the dog chasing his tail, isn’t it? If it weren’t for Tesla, 99% of what these scientists use to test this stuff wouldn’t be available.

    Off topic a bit, sorry.


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