X-Men: F---ing Magnetos... How Do They Work?

X-Men: F—ing Magnetos… How Do They Work?

“Master of Magnetism?” Bubbe, you’ll never get a good-paying job without a Ph.D.

Let’s start with two observations into Magneto’s behavior, which shall serve to illustrate the physical bases of his powers.  Note that I’m focusing on the incarnation of Magneto that appears in the X-Men film franchise, and less on the myriad variants that have appeared in comic books throughout the years.  This is in part because I assume the former is known to a larger audience, and in part because I’m too lazy to see if the comic literature corroborates my theory, after a careful reading of the comic literature, I’ve concluded that the powers granted him are absurd. (*Shifty eyes*)

Is it just me, or have this country's Born-again-Masters-of-Magentism taken over our national dialogue? "This country" being Genosha.

1) Magneto can “sense” the presence of magnetic fields, and, as illustrated in the famous prison-escape sequence in X-2, those elements which “respond” to them.  This appears to be an autonomic response: he’s not actively analyzing his surroundings in any sort of conscious way, but instead passively absorbs information through his magnetic “sense” in the way that, say, the thermal-sensing nerves of our skin respond to temperature.

2) Magneto frequently uses his powers to move objects along linear and/or irregular paths.  Or at least, they’re not moving along the curved field lines generated in a simple, static magnetic field (As per Gauss’ Law for Magnetism, see above).  Examples of this phenomenon are ample, and it’s nicely illustrated by each of his character climaxes (Heheheh–Ed.) in X-Men: First Class. In the first of these, Magneto Magneto slowly moves a Nazi coin along a linear path, passing it through Kevin Bacon’s Kevin Bacon’s brain. While such linear motion could be possible either by (a) running the projectile along a topologically fixed track (as in mag-lev trains), or (b) by generating a field over a tremendous distance, such that its north and south poles are essentially “at infinity,” neither really seems within his grasp here.  In the second climax (hurhur), his face-off with the assembled American/Russian flotillas, Magneto stops a barrage of missiles and gunfire mid-arc, and thereafter alters the projectiles’ trajectories numerous times. From each of these events, we can infer that Magneto is fully capable not just of creating simple, static magnetic fields, but also complicated fields that vary with time.

Now, given these, I’d like to propose…

Some Powers That Should Fall Within a “Master of Magnetism’s” Purview

Night Vision. Or rather, the ability to “see” pretty much anything at all, even without eyes. As stated on the previous page, a significant fraction of the universe’s matter generates tiny magnetic fields.  Magneto should be able to sense these fields directly, or to sense their response to his application of a larger external field.  Now, honing this trait to the point where he could make out facial expressions in the dark might take a great degree of work, but in the bare minimum he should be able to know where the walls in of a darkened room are.  This would also relate to his…

Atomic “Vision.” Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy–a technique that exploits the fact that atoms’ magnetic dipoles change based upon their local chemical environment–has become the workhorse application for the determination of chemical compoundsstructures. Again, turning Erik into a functioning multidimensional NMR apparatus is probably an unreasonable feat to ask, but it should be relatively easy for him to pick out gross details of a compound’s structure (i.e. “This ‘mutation cure’ you’ve developed is rich in aromatic-adjacent alkyne groups, Beast” or, “Look out, Charles! Your wine’s been doped with Indium!”).  Bare minimum: it should be pretty hard to poison his food.

[Author’s side note:magnetic fields can be used in the determination of very complex molecular structures, like those of proteins. This depends on the transfer of magnetization between physically colocalized, though nonbonded, groups–a phenomenon termed the Nuclear Overhauser Effect. I bring this up because “Nuclear Overhauser Effect” is, as far as I can tell, the only scientific term used in this post that doubles as a bitchin’ superhero and/or band name, but which hasn’t been used as such already.]

World’s Greatest Doctor.  Give him a radio gun, and the dude’s a walking MRI.  AND he’s already learned that human life has no intrinsic value.  That’s something you normally pick up during your residency.

…So, these traits, which all stem from Magneto’s ability to sense magnetic fields, are all well and good.  But what can a man with the ability to make his own time-varying magnetic fields do?

Light Manipulation. Maxwell’s laws illustrate that light can be thought of as an oscillating magnetic field (which, owing to Faraday’s Law, brings an oscillating electric field along for the ride).  Magneto should be able to do all sorts of funky stuff with light, either by creating new light, or by tinkering with the light around him.  This would include the entry level..

Light BurstsDe novo creation of light allows him to do everything from Dazzler-style shenanigans to Superman-style eye-laser beams.

Invisibility. Just move any light that’s headed his way around his body, like a springtime mountain river’s water flows around a discarded oil drum.

…or more advanced techniques, like…

Shape-shifting. At least, apparent shape-shifting. Most people only know what you look like based on the light that bounces off you.  SO, Magneto could manipulate that scattered light into portraying something else.  I’d propose this mostly for tactical purposes; given my druthers, I’d be quite happy looking like Michael Fassbender.  Or Ian McKellan.  Or Jordan Stokes.

Holography. If you can manipulate your scattered light into a new image, you could do the same with light originating from/headed towards anywhere else.

[Telekinesis of non-metallic objects? Eh, probably not.  While most everything we commonly think about is a tiny magnet, when placed in an external magnetic field these magnets tend to align themselves in a perfect 50:50 distribution parallel to- and antiparallel (opposed) to- it.  So, if Magneto tried levitate you owing only to your intrinsic magnetism, roughly half of the molecules in your body would align in a direction supporting his lifting field, while half would oppose it.  In NMR we need to apply bursts of radio-frequency light to our samples in order to shift the population balance, and even then, only about 1 in 1,000,000 molecules realigns its orientation…]

Electricity Manipulation. Another fun property of magnetic fields is that they bend the paths of moving charged particles, a phenomenon known as the Lorentz Force. Now, to be fair Magneto does exploit this quite a bit to disrupt electrical equipment. But it also means that electricity is a completely useless weapon against him: any bolt of lightning thrown his way is effectively putty in his hands, and could be deflected or re-directed as he wills.  Electro, you’re useless, here. Storm, lay off the lightning.  Actually, lay off any kind of cloud formation that accumulates charge.  Now that I think of it, it’s probably best if you just sit this one out altogether. Take some time to reevaluate your priorities.

Electricity Manipulation II: Magnetic Boogaloo. You know, the funny thing about charged particles isn’t just that their paths are bent in magnetic fields.  The “bending” of their paths equates to an acceleration–the velocity vector is changing over time, so even if the speed stays unchanged (which it doesn’t have to), the direction is changing.  Charged particles have this funny way of emitting light when they’re accelerated. For electrons, this light typically falls in the spectrum of x-rays.  SO, if  Magneto gains access to some free electrons (either from a failed attempt at hitting him with a lightning bolt… I’m looking your way, Storm… or just from, like, a wall-socket somewhere), it should be trivial for him to turn himself into a Human er…. Mutant Synchotron. Grab some electrons, spin them in a toroidal (read: “doughnut-shaped”) magnetic field, and you’ve got yourself a nearly infinite supply of flesh-searing, DNA-lesion-inducing, x-rays, Mister.  Should be enough to blind anyone in the near vicinity, give cancer to most, boil Colossus alive inside his armor (if that skin’s actually made of steel), and/or use him as a source of Bremsstrahlung radiation. [N.B.: X-rays are themselves electromagnetic waves, so Magneto should be able to make them de novo.  Given an electron source, the synchotron method requires a far lower energy input on his part.  It’s more sustainable–and that’s a buzzword, these days.]

Electricity Manipulation III: This time, it’s personal. I noted above that Faraday’s law is my favorite of the Maxwell equations*.  Hence, it should probably come as no surprise that Magneto’s failure to exploit this law is the most personally disappointing for me.  The Master of Magnetism should, by creating magnetic fields that change over time, also be the Master of Electricity.  Let’s illustrate this with a simple example (Figure 1., below).  Let’s say Magneto’s faced with an humanoid (mutant) enemy so heinous that, as defined by virtually any moral code, it’s to everyone’s collective benefit that this enemy be extinguished.  I’ve come to call this the “Jubilee Problem” (Fig. 1a). Considering that the average human body has an electrical resistance of (depending on the physical integrity of its skin, and whether it’s wet or dry) ~500–100,000 Ω, we can approximate Jubilee as a simple grounded resistor of this value (Fig. 1b).  Now, for humans the average lethal electrical shock has a current, I, of 0.07–0.1 A; by Ohm’s Law we calculate that it would require  an electrical potential difference (voltage) of ~35–20,000 V to push this current through Jubilee.  (Note: as the current is applied, her skin will probably begin to break down, lowering her resistance and making the whole process easier.)  Proper application of Faraday’s Law (Fig. 1c), via the generation of a variable magnetic field (dΦ/dt) with a rate of change of 35–20,000 Wb/s does the trick.

Accurate enough for the first peer review, at least.

Figure 1. An electrochemical solution to the "Jubilee Problem." (a) The "Jubilee Problem." (b) Reformulation of the Jubilee Problem as a simple resistor of ~500-100,000 Ω, placed between electric ground (here being the actual ground) and a possible voltage terminus (+). (c) A THING THAT SHOULD HAPPEN.

I want to clarify two points: (1) I oppose capital punishment in all of its forms, save for those expressly stated in the findings of The People vs. Scrappy-Doo (1992), for which my lawyer assures me that Jubilee qualifies.  And, (2) the direction of the current, relative to the applied magnetic field, is determined by Lenz’s law.

*-You know you’re a nerd if you’ve ever said, “…is my favorite of the Maxwell equations.”

19 Comments on “X-Men: F—ing Magnetos… How Do They Work?”

  1. Stokes OTI Staff #

    Magneto should be able to suppress electromagnetic fields as well as create them, right? In that case, wouldn’t he be able to instantly separate water into clouds of hydrogen and oxygen? Or even into, like, a giant cloud of free neutrons and neutrinos?


  2. Liza #

    If Magneto’s powers come from control of the Electromagnetic force, rather than the shape of the atoms of magical mutantiness, wouldn’t that imply that he also has control over Weak Nuclear Force by way of Electroweak unification? If he could control the Weak nuclear smoke, he should just be able to dissolve anything in his way into a puff of dust and radiation, like a bank vault door or any pesky X-men in his way, and the ability to dissolve anything or anyone seems quite scary enough. Marvel Universe: where Weinberg was wrong?


  3. shechner OTI Staff #

    These are excellent questions! Makes me glad I wrote this post.

    @Jordan: He should be able to nullify magnetic fields, I guess (or rather, create a magnetic field of equal magnitude but opposite polarity, thereby summing the overall field to zero). But I don’t think that’d let him disintegrate molecules. The bonds between atomic nuclei are indeed formed by electrons, which can be thought of as being in a constant state of motion, but beyond that we get into the world of quantum magnetism, which is quite a bit hairier. Because of Heisenberg, we can’t really think of an electron as a little ball in orbit around a bigger ball (as it’s so often schematized). Or rather, we *can* think of it that way, but wouldn’t be able to know how fast it’s going (and hence, the change in its Electric Field vector). In quantum physics we summarize an electron (or any other quantum system) in terms of a Wave Function, Psi(x,y,z,t), which can be thought of as the square of the probability function. That is, SqrRt(Psi(x,y,z,t)) will give you the probability of having an electron in a given position, (x,y,z) and time, t.

    Molecular bonding, then, happens when the electrons inhabiting a given atomic Psi function are moved into a new Psi function centered around each of the atomic nuclei in the bond. The energetics (and hence, allowable bond-forming/breaking functions available to a system) are dictated by Highest Occumpied Molecular Orbital/Lowest Unoccupied Molecular Orbital theory—or the so-called “HOMO/LUMO” model. SO, in order for magneto to disintegrate water into its substituents, he’d have to (A) Have a handle on the probabilistic, quantum magnetic fields generated by the current HOMO in H2O (herher..) and then (B) be able to generate a field that’d swap the energetics of them such that the electrons repopulate atomic orbitals (which are normally higher energy than molecular orbitals). It’s a tall order. To wit, I don’t know of any device that can use magnets to make or break atomic bonds.

    Photolysis, on the other hand, should be well within his wheelhouse. There are a number of cases where atomic bonds can be made/broken by addition of light. X-rays, for example, are fantastic at breaking all sorts of bonds nonspecifically, but many bonds will respond to a single wavelength of applied light. One can even photolyse water, for example. But the effects of this weapon would be less specific: I imagine that, once he’s generated powerful enough light to lyse water molecules in your body, you’d probably get severely burned by the effects that light’s having on all your non-water molecules, too.

    As for your answer to the neutrino separation, check out my answer to Liza’s question…

    @Liza. True, but non at this temperature, right? Electroweak unification-the point where the virtual photons that “exert” the electromagnetic force “merge” with the W and Z bosons of the Weak Force-doesn’t spontaneously happen until you get to ~10^15 K. (In Boston, for example, it’s currently ~307 K, so we’d have a ways to go). Statistical thermodynamics informs us that any allowable transition should be attainable at any temperature, but with different probabilities. I don’t know what the partition function (which allots the allowable energetic states into different probabilities) looks like for electroweak unification at these temps, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s <<< 1 in 10^23 (since, for example, we never observe, like, spontaneous explosions of water molecules in 18 mL of water).

    SO, Magneto'd be able to exploit the Weak Nuclear Force, but veeeeeerrry little of it. Caveat: he'd hold more sway in the center of the sun.


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      Do the same people that lobby for intelligent design textbooks also lobby for the LUMO-only model of molecular dynamics?


  4. Timothy J Swann #

    Terrific article, I’m sharing it with all my comicky friends. All it takes is for one person to come along and write the story, of course, and then all his powers could at last break loose.


  5. Archie #

    This is incredibly good. One of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. Very well written, very entertaining, very clever. I commend you.


  6. Stefan #

    This article is why I love over-thin king it.

    I only wish I was knowledgeable enough to say something clever.


    • shechner OTI Staff #

      Aww… thanks so much, Tim, Archie and Stefan! I always worry that my particular fondness for math might scare away, well, everybody. :)

      @Jordan: It only gets worse, sadly. Depending on the energetics and local structures of two molecules’ HOMOs and LUMOs, they can sometimes react by what’s termed an “SN2” mechanism, otherwise called “Backside Attack.”

      Yes, that’s right. All across the country, Orgo students are required to answer problem set questions of the form, “…do molecule X and Y’s HOMOs support a backside attack model?” with a straight face.

      Now that I think of it, I’m gonna’ start marketing T-shirts to bible-belt chemistry students that read, “God Made Adam and Eve, not Pi and Pi*.”


  7. Covington Jim #

    Perhaps he’s really just lying about his abilities, knowing that if the truth were revealed he’d be farmed for his midichlorians.

    I think he’s actually just snapping branes around like a repressed locker-room towel whip.


    • shechner OTI Staff #

      I think he’s actually just snapping branes around like a repressed locker-room towel whip.

      Insane in the P-brane! Insane in the brane!


  8. Covington Jim #

    Or maybe he has a magic garment. I suspect it’s that nice Casimir turtleneck.


  9. Tom P #

    I (or you) could argue that this helps to explain his seeming genius level grasp on every field of science from genetics to particle physics to how mutant powers actually -work-.


  10. Foxbat40 #

    I think the limits to his powers are more to do with the limits of the human mind. I propose tehre is a limit to the number of electro magnetic fields he can generate at a time. Lets for the sake of argument agree that that number is 1000. I base that on the maximum number of objects I have seen magneto manipulate at a time in the x-man series. Given this it is best if he focuses his magnetic fiels on objects that have all their atoms aligned with their poles in the same direction. Otherwise he would have to create a new field for each atom. An object made up of only 1000 atoms would be quite small. So he instead focuses on metal objects.

    I also don’t think he could change his apearance because that would require a magnetic field orchestrated in an extremely complex shape. A different curve for every change would be needed. He could however make himself disapear with a spherical field diverting light around him.

    Again I think the limitations are with his mind and the limits of the human mind. We have no specialized portion of the brain for controlling things that are hyper small and large in quantity. We can barely even comprehend numbers over a million,much less the billions and trillions of fields needed to move non magnetic objects.


  11. Howard #

    The arrangement you’re describing in the “telekinesis of nonmagnetic materials” sounds like antiferromagnetism. Most materials are diamagnetic – that is, the molecules tend to align opposite the magnetic field. Put another way, if you graphed magnetization (the net alignment of the molecules) versus applied field for a diamagnet, it would look like a line in the 2nd and 4th quadrants. As such, it’s quite possible to levitate something that’s not generally considered magnetic in a magnetic field – it just takes a pretty large field.

    For example, a frog being levitated: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1vyB-O5i6E

    For something of that size, the field required is something on the order of 10 tesla (the Earth’s magnetic field is about 50 microtesla; a typical refrigerator magnet is about 5 millitesla). A large field, sure, and one that probably requires a superconducting magnet, but not incomprehensibly large.


    • shechner OTI Staff #

      @Howard: If I hadn’t seen the levitating frog (strawberry, grasshopper &ct) with own looking-balls, I’d never have believed it. My understanding must be in err, then: I thought that, in the presence of a large external field, the spin vectors (and hence the resultant magnetic dipole) precess. Which is to say, they orient with a vector component–let’s call it z–parallel (or antiparallel) to the field, but with x and y components varying as the vector sum precesses in the circular path. Perhaps this is only applicable in an NMR experiment, amongst the resonant population? Or, perhaps the spin-vector precession doesn’t change the orientation of the external dipole?

      True that a 10 T field isn’t huge; it’s roughly comparable to what a mid-level NMR apparatus uses, right? I haven’t done the calculation, but it should be *way* less than what’s required to lift a submarine out of its depths…

      @Foxbat – I’ll concede that keeping a hold on thousands of discrete fields would probably be too much for one person’s mutant’s brain to handle simultaneously. However, controlling things that are hyper small (at least in units of time, which is applicable here) is well within the average person’s reach. Anyone who can whistle or sing is consciously vibrating the air around them at hundreds of intervals per second. Doing so doesn’t require an explicit knowledge of the physics of sound, but is essentially instinctive: their brain’s manipulation of the macroscopic outcome (a discrete pitch) is enough–physics can handle the rest. SO, if we assume that Magneto’s control over his powers is as instinctive to him as whistling is to us, then changing the color, direction, polarization of light should be within his scope.

      @Everybody: Incidentally, it’s unclear to me why magnetic fields can’t lens light on their own, as large gravitation fields do. This is why I described Magneto’s proposed “invisibility” as stemming from his direct manipulation of the individual light beams’ magnetic components–not just by his applying a large field to himself and letting the light bend around him. Anyone care to explicate? Also, how intense (or how dramatic would the cutoff between “in-field” and “out-field”) would a magnetic field need to be in order to generate a Hawking-radiation-type system? That is, if the “quantum foam” yielded two oppositely charged particles *just* at the cusp of an intense field (an ambiguous term I’m using instead of “event horizon”), one should be sucked into the field, while the other radiates away. Of course, unlike Hawking radiation, each of the particles would survive. Thoughts? This is about the point where the emphasis on the *bio* part of my biophysics training becomes painfully clear…


      • Howard #

        Individual spins do precess, but they precess around any perpendicular magnetic field. The frequency with which they precess depends on the field strength. My understanding of MRI is that it uses nuclear magnetic resonance, which involves first applying a constant field to align the nuclear spins and then hitting the system with an additional pulsed perpendicular field that varies at a given frequency. When the frequency matches the resonance frequency of a given nucleus, there’s some signature that we can measure (this is where my understanding gets fuzzy). According to wiki, a typical MRI in a hospital uses a 1.5-3 T field, with up to 10 being used in research facilities.

        Diamagnetism basically works because the applied field perturbs the electrons orbiting the nucleus, changing the flux through the little current loop of the electron orbit, which brings Lenz’s Law into play. It’s a spin-orbit effect (and I kind of hate invoking that), not a spin alignment effect like other types of magnetism. The levitation works by making a field gradient that opposes gravity. It’s not quite the same arrangement as the MRI.

        Magnetic fields don’t do anything to light because photons don’t have charge. Same thing with electric fields – there’s no force exerted on anything that doesn’t have a charge, and photons are just traveling waves. The superposition principle applies for electric/magnetic fields, so fields don’t have any effect on other fields. Gravity doesn’t change the photons themselves, as photons don’t have mass. Gravity distorts the space that light travels through. I guess it’s a somewhat subtle point, but there you go. Imagine a ball rolling on a sheet – you can change the ball’s path both by physically touching the ball and pushing it in some direction, or you can do it by distorting the sheet. Gravity does the latter.

        I’m not really sure how Hawking radiation works, so I’m not sure I can give a good answer for that question. Magnetic force only changes the direction of a charged particle’s velocity (the force equation involves a cross product), and since the particles are oppositely charged, they would attract and annihilate. So I suppose the answer is that there is no magnetic field you could apply to keep the particles apart. You could do it with an electric field, which would accelerate the particles in opposite directions, but I have no idea how big it would need to be. Presumably it would be huge, since the particle-antiparticle pair would be generated pretty close to one another, and electromagnetism is a relatively strong force.


  12. Stefan #

    Has Magneto ever threatened to stop the Earth’s core rotating thereby giving everyone sunburn STOPPING GRAVITY AND EVERYONE FLOATING OFF INTO SPACE!?


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