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What is a magnetic field?

A magnetic field is a picture that we use as a tool to describe how

the magnetic force is distributed in the space around and within something

Most of us have some familiarity with everyday magnetic objects and

recognize that there can be forces between them. We understand that
magnets have two poles and that depending on the orientation of two
magnets there can be attraction (opposite poles) or repulsion (similar poles).
We recognize that there is some region extending around a magnet where
this happens. The magnetic field describes this region.

There are two different ways that a magnetic field is typically illustrated:
[Explain : some details]

1. The magnetic field is described mathematically as a vector field. This vector

field can be plotted directly as a set of many vectors drawn on a grid. Each
vector points in the direction that a compass would point and has length
dependent on the strength of the magnetic force.
[Explain compasses]

Arranging many small compasses in a grid pattern and placing the grid in a
magnetic field illustrates this technique. The only difference here is that a
compass doesn't indicate the strength of a field.
Figure 1: Vector field plot for a bar magnet
Figure 1: Vector field plot for a bar magnet.

2. An alternative way to represent the information contained within a vector

field is with the use of field lines. Here we dispense with the grid pattern
and connect the vectors with smooth lines. We can draw as many lines as
we want.

Figure 2: Field line plot for a bar magnet

Figure 2: Field line plot for a bar magnet

The field-line description has some useful properties:

 Magnetic field lines never cross.

 Magnetic field lines naturally bunch together in regions where the magnetic
field is the strongest. This means that the density of field lines indicates the
strength of the field.

 Magnetic field lines don't start or stop anywhere, they always make closed
loops and will continue inside a magnetic material (though sometimes they
are not drawn this way).
 We require a way to indicate the direction of the field. This is usually done
by drawing arrowheads along the lines. Sometimes arrowheads are not
drawn and the direction must be indicated in some other way. For historical
reasons the convention is to label one region 'north' and another 'south' and
draw field lines only from these 'poles'. The field is assumed to follow the
lines from north to south. 'N' and 'S' labels are usually placed on the ends
of a magnetic field source, although strictly this is arbitrary and there is
nothing special about these locations.
[Explain magnetic field of the earth]


 Field lines can be visualized quite easily in the real world. This is commonly
done with iron filings dropped on a surface near something magnetic. Each
filing behaves like a tiny magnet with a north and south pole. The filings
naturally separate from each other because similar poles repel each other.
The result is a pattern that resembles field lines. While the general pattern
will always be the same, the exact position and density of lines of filings
depends on how the filings happened to fall, their size and magnetic

Figure 3: Magnetic field lines around a bar magnet visualized using iron
Figure 3: Magnetic field lines around a bar magnet visualized using iron filings.
How do we measure magnetic fields?

Because a magnetic field is a vector quantity, there are two aspects we need
to measure to describe it; the strength and direction.

The direction is easy to measure. We can use a magnetic compass which

lines up with the field. Magnetic compasses have been used for navigation
(using the earth's magnetic field) since the 11ᵗʰ century.

Interestingly, measuring the strength is considerably more difficult.

Practical magnetometers only came available in the 19ᵗʰ century. Most of
these magnetometers work by exploiting the force an electron feels as it
moves through a magnetic field.

Very accurate measurement of small magnetic fields has only been practical
since the discovery in 1988 of giant magnetoresistance in specially layered
materials. This discovery in fundamental physics was quickly applied to the
magnetic hard-disk technology used for storing data in computers. This lead
to a thousand-fold increase in data storage capacity in just a few years
immediately following the implementation of the technology (0.1 to
100 \mathrm{Gbit/inch^2}Gbit/inch2 between 1991 and 2003 [2]). In 2007
Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for
this discovery.

In the SI system, the magnetic field is measured in tesla

(symbol \mathrm{T}T, named after Nikola Tesla). The Tesla is defined in
terms of how much force is applied to a moving charge due to the field. A
small refrigerator magnet produces a field of
around 0.001~\mathrm{T}0.001 T and the earth's field is about 5\cdot
10^{-5}~\mathrm{T}5⋅10−5 T. An alternative measurement is also often
used, the Gauss (symbol \mathrm{G}G). There is a simple conversion
factor, 1~\mathrm{T} = 10^4~\mathrm{G}1 T=104 G. Gauss is often used
because 1 Tesla is a very large field.
In equations the magnitude of the magnetic field is given the symbol BBB.
You may also see a quantity called the magnetic field strength which is
given the symbol HHH. Both BBB and HHH have the same units,
but HHH takes into account the effect of magnetic fields being concentrated
by magnetic materials. For simple problems taking place in air you won't
need to worry about this distinction.

What is the origin of the magnetic field?

Magnetic fields occur whenever charge is in motion. As more charge is put

in more motion, the strength of a magnetic field increases.

Magnetism and magnetic fields are one aspect of the electromagnetic force,
one of the four fundamental forces of nature.

There are two basic ways which we can arrange for charge to be in motion
and generate a useful magnetic field:

1. We make a current flow through a wire, for example by connecting it to a

battery. As we increase the current (amount of charge in motion) the field
increases proportionally. As we move further away from the wire, the field
we see drops off proportionally with the distance. This is described
by Ampere's law. Simplified to tell us the magnetic field at a
distance rrr from a long straight wire carrying current III the equation is
B = \frac{\mu_0 I}{2 \pi r}B=2πrμ0IB, equals, start fraction, mu, start
subscript, 0, end subscript, I, divided by, 2, pi, r, end fraction

Here \mu_0μ0mu, start subscript, 0, end subscript is a special constant

known as the permeability of free space. \mu_0 = 4\pi\cdot 10^{-
7}~\mathrm{T\cdot m / A}μ0=4π⋅10−7 T⋅m/A. Some materials have the
ability to concentrate magnetic fields, this is described by those materials
having higher permeability.

Since the magnetic field is a vector, we also need to know the direction.
For conventional current flowing through a straight wire this can be found
by the right-hand-grip-rule. To use this rule imagine gripping your right
hand around the wire with your thumb pointing in the direction of the
current. The fingers show the direction of the magnetic field which wraps
around the wire.

Right-hand-grip rule used to find the direction of the magnetic field (B)
based on the direction of a current (I). [3]
Figure 4: Right-hand-grip rule used to find the direction of the magnetic field (B) based on the direction of
a current (I). [3]

2. We can exploit the fact that electrons (which are charged) appear
[explain appear]

to have some motion around the nuclei of atoms. This is how permanent
magnets work. As we know from experience, only some 'special' materials
can be made into magnets and some magnets are much stronger than others.
So some specific conditions must be required:

 Although atoms often have many electrons, they mostly 'pair up' in such a
way that the overall magnetic field of a pair cancels out. Two electrons
paired in this way are said to have opposite spin. So if we want something
to be magnetic we need atoms that have one or more unpaired electrons with
the same spin. Iron for example is a 'special' material that has four such
electrons and therefore is good for making magnets out of.
[Explain 'pairing up']

 Even a tiny piece of material contains billions of atoms. If they are all
randomly orientated the overall field will cancel out, regardless of how
many unpaired electrons the material has. The material has to be stable
enough at room temperature to allow an overall preferred orientation to be
established. If established permanently then we have a permanent magnet,
also known as a ferromagnet.
 Some materials can only become sufficiently well ordered to be magnetic
when in the presence of an external magnetic field. The external field serves
to line all the electron spins up, but this alignment disappears once the
external field is removed. These kinds of materials are known
as paramagnetic.

The metal of a refrigerator door is an example of a paramagnet. The

refrigerator door itself is not magnetic, but behaves like a magnet when a
refrigerator magnet is placed on it. Both then attract each other strongly
enough to easily keep in place a shopping list, sandwiched between the two.

Canceling the field of the earth

Figure 5 shows a setup in which a compass is placed near a vertical wire.

When no current is flowing in the wire the compass points north as shown
due to the earth's field (assume the field of the earth is 5\cdot 10^{-
5}~\mathrm{T}5⋅10−5 T).

Figure 5: Compass and wire experiment (viewed from above, no current

Figure 5: Compass and wire experiment (viewed from above, no current flowing).