Magnetism and Life

Magnetism and LifeOne of the things that beginning chemistry students run into very early is the fact that magnetism plays a vital role in the way electrons and atoms work. I remember one of my favorite students who whined and complained when we talked about paired electrons and their dependence on magnetism. He said, “Why does chemistry have to be so terribly complicated? I could function very nicely without magnetism, thank you.” My response was that not only could he not function without magnetism, but he could not exist without magnetism. There is an inseparable bond between magnetism and life.

Most of us are aware of magnetism in only a vague way. We know that magnets stick things to our refrigerators, and we are familiar with magnetic compasses. We have some awareness that the Earth has a magnetic field, although we don’t know how or why. The simple fact is that, without magnetism, we would not exist. In addition to that, much of what allows us to live as we do depends on magnetism. Our appliances and electronic devices work because of magnets and magnetic principles. In fact, magnetism generates the electricity we use.

Earth’s magnetism and life are connected in a way that most people don’t understand. As charged particles come toward us from the Sun and other objects in space, Earth’s magnetic field deflects them away. Without this protective shield, radiation would be so high on the Earth’s surface that life would have a very difficult time surviving. Also, magnetism is an active force in living things. Many animals migrate from one geographic area to another using Earth’s magnetic field as a guide. We have even found that tiny magnets inside our bodies can be used to see things that are invisible to X-rays and ultrasound. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is an important tool available to modem science.

The reason magnetism works is because of the design of the electron. Electrons possess a magnetic field. Each electron has a north and a south magnetic pole caused by the electron’s spin. We don’t know exactly how this works, but we do know that for chemical reactions to take place, electrons must have their magnetic field in a specific alignment. This magnetic property of electrons controls all chemical reactions and makes a variety of other chemical processes possible. If an electron had all of its electrons paired up magnetically, all of its energy fields filling the atom would be totally stable. Elements that have that arrangement are called inert, and examples are helium, neon, argon, krypton, and xenon.

In some materials, there are large numbers of unpaired electrons. The energy of unpaired electrons allows these elements to be very active, and we use those materials for a variety of special purposes. Atoms strive to have all magnetic fields balanced and closed, and that is the basis of modem chemistry. When electrons flow through a wire, their alignment causes their magnetic fields to add and grow. That is the basis of the electromagnet and the Earth’s magnetic field which protects us.

The design of the atom and the way magnetism is built into elements allows the existence of matter, life, and the protective system that sustains life on Earth. The connection between magnetism and life and the complexity of this system tells us that chance is not the guiding mechanism. There are intelligence and purpose in the system that makes life possible. The design of the cosmos that functions year after year speaks eloquently of the wisdom and power of its Creator.
— John N. Clayton © 2019