Monday, September 12, 2011

Animal Magnetism and the Lure of Bad Ideas

[This post was inspired by seeing a horse with magnetic bracelets around its fetlocks; the animal was undergoing "magnetic therapy treatment."]

Magnets fascinate us because they act at a distance -- both attracting and repelling.  Lodestone (the name literally means "leading stone") was so named for its navigational utility. There was a time when magnetism was consigned to inanimate things -- and then just mostly to iron. Ironically, magnetic navigation by birds and other animals appears to rely on magnetite.

As long as magnetism remains a mysterious force, it will find uses in medicine and alternative therapies. Discredited science and pseudo-science can die out and then return in vigor, once new discoveries occur. Such is the case for animal magnetism.

Around 1784, pre-revolutionary Paris was enthralled by Franz Mesmer, whose schtick was to pass magnets over people and cure them of alleged physical and mental ailments. Louis XVI (or his courtiers) was concerned enough to task the learned heads at the time to look into the matter. A Royal Commission included Antoine Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin, among others. To make a long but interesting story short, the Royal Commission debunked Mesmer and he faded into near obscurity, leaving behind only the verb "to mesmerize." The whole story was brilliantly translated and retold by Stephen Jay Gould in his Bully For Brontosaurus.

Around 1845, Michael Faraday discovered that all matter responds to magnetic fields, albeit weakly and then only in the presence of very strong fields. Faraday named this remarkable property diamagnetism (though he did not explain its origins). Faraday's discovery briefly reenergized a belief in animal magnetism.

Faraday also discovered the paramagnetism of oxygen (he used soap bubbles filled with O2 rather than liquid oxygen). Faraday developed a theory that atmospheric oxygen is seasonally influenced by the earth's magnetic field via temperature. He later abandoned this brainchild.*
*Frank A.J.L. James, Michael Faraday: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (2010)


  1. Thanks for your much more than ever-so-slightly qualified kind words in other corners of the Blogger-sphere. Trooper's right, I've been alive, if laying low, (mostly for technical reasons), and the time away has been good. Very good, in fact. Conveying a tone and material that is appreciated equally well by everybody is damn near impossible on the internets, so I definitely enjoyed the long, long break from obsessively trying to say all that which I can't be sure is being rightly heard. It was good and relaxing and quite peaceful and I am so reluctant to step back into the fray for that reason alone. But I felt remiss in not reaching out to you after seeing some comments back and forth at Trooper's place.

    Can't promise I'll be back regularly but I'll do what I'll can, and try to keep a light on for you and whomever else wants to drop by at my cyber-porch.

    All the best and Cheers -

  2. Hey Ritmo, glad to see you back!

    Thanks for the kind words. So you lurk at Trooper's, huh? He never comes by here anymore.

    I already went by your blog earlier and left a few droppings. We'll catch up somehow.

  3. P.S. That is my favorite avatar of yours--much better than that Buckley avatar you were using towards the end.

    P.P.S. Just don't tell me that you're that "NotquiteunBuckley" character over on Althouse because that would be sad and entirely too predictable. :)

  4. Lol. I'm definitely not that guy. ;-)

    I actually hadn't even dropped by the Troop's place to read much - until lately, let alone comment. That might change now, but I'd really like to do the best job I can from now on of keeping everything smooth and friendly; it's good to see all the comment hits he's been getting, but not at a suddenly apparent price that might have come from a more contentious element of the Althouse contingent that he seems to have attracted lately. You've probably got the right idea given your company of some non-Althousians and brighter Althousians/co-bloggers with whom you maintained a tighter bond - it's pretty hard to get much of a "non-native" following on Blogger.

    I don't see how it will be possible to be only in touch with one of you. Given your love of chemistry and Troop's love of frenetically composed fiction I might have to be the go-between. My equal parts verbal diarrhea and geekiness have to come in handy somehow, I suppose.

    Cheers -