This book was ‘okay…ish’, but I must admit I was a bit disappointed; the coverage was much too superficial, and I’m reasonably sure the lack of formalism made the coverage harder for me to follow than it could have been. I gave the book two stars on goodreads.

Some quotes and links below.


“In the 19th century, the principles were established on which the modern electromagnetic world could be built. The electrical turbine is the industrialized embodiment of Faraday’s idea of producing electricity by rotating magnets. The turbine can be driven by the wind or by falling water in hydroelectric power stations; it can be powered by steam which is itself produced by boiling water using the heat produced from nuclear fission or burning coal or gas. Whatever the method, rotating magnets inducing currents feed the appetite of the world’s cities for electricity, lighting our streets, powering our televisions and computers, and providing us with an abundant source of energy. […] rotating magnets are the engine of the modern world. […] Modern society is built on the widespread availability of cheap electrical power, and almost all of it comes from magnets whirling around in turbines, producing electric current by the laws discovered by Oersted, Ampère, and Faraday.”

“Maxwell was the first person to really understand that a beam of light consists of electric and magnetic oscillations propagating together. The electric oscillation is in one plane, at right angles to the magnetic oscillation. Both of them are in directions at right angles to the direction of propagation. […] The oscillations of electricity and magnetism in a beam of light are governed by Maxwell’s four beautiful equations […] Above all, Einstein’s work on relativity was motivated by a desire to preserve the integrity of Maxwell’s equations at all costs. The problem was this: Maxwell had derived a beautiful expression for the speed of light, but the speed of light with respect to whom? […] Einstein deduced that the way to fix this would be to say that all observers will measure the speed of any beam of light to be the same. […] Einstein showed that magnetism is a purely relativistic effect, something that wouldn’t even be there without relativity. Magnetism is an example of relativity in everyday life. […] Magnetic fields are what electric fields look like when you are moving with respect to the charges that ‘cause’ them. […] every time a magnetic field appears in nature, it is because a charge is moving with respect to the observer. Charge flows down a wire to make an electric current and this produces magnetic field. Electrons orbit an atom and this ‘orbital’ motion produces a magnetic field. […] the magnetism of the Earth is due to electrical currents deep inside the planet. Motion is the key in each and every case, and magnetic fields are the evidence that charge is on the move. […] Einstein’s theory of relativity casts magnetism in a new light. Magnetic fields are a relativistic correction which you observe when charges move relative to you.”

“[T]he Bohr–van Leeuwen theorem […] states that if you assume nothing more than classical physics, and then go on to model a material as a system of electrical charges, then you can show that the system can have no net magnetization; in other words, it will not be magnetic. Simply put, there are no lodestones in a purely classical Universe. This should have been a revolutionary and astonishing result, but it wasn’t, principally because it came about 20 years too late to knock everyone’s socks off. By 1921, the initial premise of the Bohr–van Leeuwen theorem, the correctness of classical physics, was known to be wrong […] But when you think about it now, the Bohr–van Leeuwen theorem gives an extraordinary demonstration of the failure of classical physics. Just by sticking a magnet to the door of your refrigerator, you have demonstrated that the Universe is not governed by classical physics.”

“[M]ost real substances are weakly diamagnetic, meaning that when placed in a magnetic field they become weakly magnetic in the opposite direction to the field. Water does this, and since animals are mostly water, it applies to them. This is the basis of Andre Geim’s levitating frog experiment: a live frog is placed in a strong magnetic field and because of its diamagnetism it becomes weakly magnetic. In the experiment, a non-uniformity of the magnetic field induces a force on the frog’s induced magnetism and, hey presto, the frog levitates in mid-air.”

“In a conventional hard disk technology, the disk needs to be spun very fast, around 7,000 revolutions per minute. […] The read head floats on a cushion of air about 15 nanometres […] above the surface of the rotating disk, reading bits off the disk at tens of megabytes per second. This is an extraordinary engineering achievement when you think about it. If you were to scale up a hard disk so that the disk is a few kilometres in diameter rather a few centimetres, then the read head would be around the size of the White House and would be floating over the surface of the disk on a cushion of air one millimetre thick (the diameter of the head of a pin) while the disk rotated below it at a speed of several million miles per hour (fast enough to go round the equator a couple of dozen times in a second). On this scale, the bits would be spaced a few centimetres apart around each track. Hard disk drives are remarkable. […] Although hard disks store an astonishing amount of information and are cheap to manufacture, they are not fast information retrieval systems. To access a particular piece of information involves moving the head and rotating the disk to a particular spot, taking perhaps a few milliseconds. This sounds quite rapid, but with processors buzzing away and performing operations every nanosecond or so, a few milliseconds is glacial in comparison. For this reason, modern computers often use solid state memory to store temporary information, reserving the hard disk for longer-term bulk storage. However, there is a trade-off between cost and performance.”

“In general, there is a strong economic drive to store more and more information in a smaller and smaller space, and hence a need to find a way to make smaller and smaller bits. […] [However] greater miniturization comes at a price. The point is the following: when you try to store a bit of information in a magnetic medium, an important constraint on the usefulness of the technology is how long the information will last for. Almost always the information is being stored at room temperature and so needs to be robust to the ever present random jiggling effects produced by temperature […] It turns out that the crucial parameter controlling this robustness is the ratio of the energy needed to reverse the bit of information (in other words, the energy required to change the magnetization from one direction to the reverse direction) to a characteristic energy associated with room temperature (an energy which is, expressed in electrical units, approximately one-fortieth of a Volt). So if the energy to flip a magnetic bit is very large, the information can persist for thousands of years […] while if it is very small, the information might only last for a small fraction of a second […] This energy is proportional to the volume of the magnetic bit, and so one immediately sees a problem with making bits smaller and smaller: though you can store bits of information at higher density, there is a very real possibility that the information might be very rapidly scrambled by thermal fluctuations. This motivates the search for materials in which it is very hard to flip the magnetization from one state to the other.”

“The change in the Earth’s magnetic field over time is a fairly noticeable phenomenon. Every decade or so, compass needles in Africa are shifting by a degree, and the magnetic field overall on planet Earth is about 10% weaker than it was in the 19th century.”

Below I have added some links to topics and people covered/mentioned in the book. Many of the links below have likely also been included in some of the other posts about books from the A Brief Introduction OUP physics series which I’ve posted this year – the main point of adding these links is to give some idea what kind of stuff’s covered in the book:

William Gilbert/De Magnete.
Alessandro Volta.
Ampère’s circuital law.
Charles-Augustin de Coulomb.
Hans Christian Ørsted.
Leyden jar
/voltaic cell/battery (electricity).
Homopolar motor.
Michael Faraday.
Electromagnetic induction.
Zeeman effect.
Alternating current/Direct current.
Nikola Tesla.
Thomas Edison.
Force field (physics).
Ole Rømer.
Centimetre–gram–second system of units.
James Clerk Maxwell.
Maxwell’s equations.
Permeability (electromagnetism).
Gauss’ law.
Michelson–Morley experiment
Special relativity.
Drift velocity.
Curie’s law.
Curie temperature.
Andre Geim.
Exchange interaction.
Magnetic domain.
Domain wall (magnetism).
Stern–Gerlach experiment.
Dirac equation.
Giant magnetoresistance.
Spin valve.
Racetrack memory.
Perpendicular recording.
Bubble memory (“an example of a brilliant idea which never quite made it”, as the author puts it).
Single-molecule magnet.
Earth’s magnetic field.
Van Allen radiation belt.
South Atlantic Anomaly.
Geomagnetic storm.
Geomagnetic reversal.
ITER (‘International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor’).
Spin glass.
Quantum spin liquid.
Spin ice.
Magnetic monopole.
Ice rules.


August 28, 2017 Posted by | Books, Computer science, Geology, Physics | Leave a comment