The Tale of A Nail

“Wait, Sy, let me get my head around that hysteresis loop diagram. You got my iron nail starting at that red dot because it’s not magnetized yet so that’s zero on the up‑down magnetism deviation scale, right? And it’s also zero on the left‑right driver scale because we’re not laying a magnetic field on it.”

“Yup, that’s the starting point, Vinnie.”

“OK, then we turn on the outside field and if it’s strong enough the nail gets magnetic, too, and so we travel up the red line. But the line’s not straight, it’s bendy. Why ain’t it straight?”

“To keep this specific, I’ll stick to the current theory for magnetization of iron. At point zero the individual iron atoms have their personal magnetic fields in completely random orientations. What we measure outside the nail is the average of all of that, which nets out to zero. Now we turn on the external magnetic field a little bit at a time so we can measure the effect. You remember we said that the iron atoms in a magnet are organized in domains.”

“Sure. I don’t forget easy.”

“I’ve noticed. OK, that upward bend at the beginning is slow increase in the nail’s magnetization while those domains are forming up. First a few atoms in one small area orient their local fields relative to the external field. Their combined field influences neighboring atoms to join in. The process is called nucleation because those first few atoms form the nucleus of a domain. The nucleus gains strength by recruiting more atoms, making it an even stronger recruiter. The red line rises exponentially until there aren’t any more unrecruited atoms.”

“That’s the end of the upward bend, huh?”

“Mm-hm, now we enter the linear phase and a different magnetization process. Energy in the external field feeds the domains pointed parallel to it at the expense of domains at a different angle. Domain growth is roughly linear with applied field strength. That line would like to stay straight but nothing goes on forever except maybe the Universe. Sooner or later the domains start running out of room to grow into. Increasing the driver strength doesn’t produce any further effect and we say that the nail’s magnetic field is saturated.”

“That makes sense. Let’s see if I can figure the blue loop from where the head end is north. The number 2 arrow says that if we dial down the driver, that’s the outside field and we’re moving to the left, when we get to zero the deviation, that’s the nail’s field, is still going strong and we got a permanent magnet. If we adjust the outside field leftward beyond zero that kills off the nail’s field … Hey, so the backward domains are eating the forward ones, right?”

“Probably. Depends on the material. Not good to ride the theory too far without checking the experimental data but that’d be my guess.”

“OK, so we drive those little domains until they saturate with the head end south. When we dial down the driver’s field backward strength we move to the right and the nail climbs the number 3 curve. The driver field returns to zero but the nail’s still a backward permanent magnet. We push the driver and the nail to forward saturation again and we can go loop‑de‑loop. But we never go through the red dot again — either the nail’s a permanent magnet when the driver’s zero or it not a magnet while the driver’s strong but they’re never both zero again.”

“Unless we scramble all the domains by heating the nail white-hot and letting it cool away from any external fields.”

“You know what’s missing from that picture, Sy?”

I’d wondered if he’d spot it. “I’ll bite. What?”

“Numbers. Up‑down is how strong the magnet is, right, but I know my knife‑holder magnets are a lot stronger than my calendar marker magnets. And the side‑to‑side part is about how well the stuff holds its magnetism. What’s the theory that puts numbers on the graph?”

“Sorry to tell you this given your math aversion, Vinnie, but the numbers are buried in big, thick books with equations in them. Pictures can only get you so far.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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