Physics 24, Section 1

Magnets: Science, Technology, and "Magic Tricks" (1 unit, P/NP)

Professor Frances Hellman
Friday 11:00-12:00, 397 Le Conte Hall, Class number: 28810

Magnets and magnetic fields are essential to almost every aspect of our lives, from the most fundamental science experiments, to medical applications like the MRI, to computers and cars and navigation, to beautiful effects like the aurora borealis. The earth’s magnetic field has made navigation possible for thousands of years, and keeps life on our planet safe from energetic particles coming from the sun and beyond. Magnetism has been known to exist for thousands of years, and yet requires twentieth-century physics (quantum mechanics) to understand the basic principles, such as what makes iron magnetic. Many Nobel Prizes have been given for discoveries related to magnetism, and magnets also make some of the best and most fun "magic tricks" or demonstrations. Magnetism is found on the tiniest scale (electrons) and the largest (galaxies). We will learn what makes iron magnetic, and copper not magnetic. I will show why a magnet pushes away a superconductor, which makes levitated trains possible, but how the strongest magnetic fields are produced by superconducting magnets. We will discuss why there are magnets in a car's starter motor, and in computer hard drives, and where current research efforts are. We will also talk about some of the most exciting topics in modern magnetism, such as what happens when you try to make magnets really small (a field known as "nanomagnetism") or when you try to blend together magnets and semiconductors ("spin electronics").

Instructor Bio

Frances Hellman is Professor of Physics and of Materials Science and Engineering, a Senior Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Dean of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at UC Berkeley, where she oversees the departments of Astronomy, Earth and Planetary Science, Mathematics, Physics, and Statistics. She is an expert in novel magnetic, semiconducting, and superconducting materials, especially in thin-film form. She is also a visiting scientist at the San Francisco Exploratorium, where she goes whenever possible to work with them on exhibits, some of them involving magnets. She received her BA in Physics from Dartmouth College and her PhD in Applied Physics from Stanford University. Before joining the Berkeley faculty in 2005, she held positions at AT&T Bell Labs and UC San Diego. Her faculty office is filled with magnets, and her laboratory is her workshop, where she delights in devising experiments on magnetic materials composed of rare and exotic ingredients.


This seminar is intended for anyone with an interest in understanding some science that is all around us.

This seminar is part of the following programs

Food for Thought