In a 1983 interview for the BBC series Fun to Imagine, physicist Richard Feynman briefly loses his mind when asked why magnets attract and repel. The awkwardly-phrased question provokes a mounting seven-minute tirade. “I can’t explain that attraction in terms of anything else that’s familiar to you,” he non-explains; “When you explain a why you have to be in some framework that you’ve allowed something to be true, otherwise you’re perpetually asking the why.” And so Feynman circles back onto himself, repeatedly; to explain magnetic repulsion, one needs to understand the existence of magnetic force, electrical force, the state of electrons in objects, gravity, and so on.
“I’m not answering your question,” he interrupts himself at one point; “I’m telling you how difficult a ‘why’ question is.”
Magnetism might be the most romantic of all the topics in science to be metaphorically butchered by poets. But of course, the one thing we all know about them–if we know nothing else–is that magnets do, in fact, exist. And this is their poetry, that they are both too easy and too hard: a child can intuit how magnets work, but an adult might require deep quantum mechanics to explain the laws of attraction, the omnipresent fields that that certain animals can perceive, these stones capable of storing memory, or the units of magnetic strength and orientation called “magnetic moments.”
My most common day-to-day interactions with magnets are incredibly intimate. The pixels on the anodyne surface of the smartphone in my palm don’t burrow into my consciousness as intensely as do the sounds pumped by small, powerful magnets through speakers and earbuds, or the haptic buzz of “vibrate mode” produced by the tiny, magnetic motor deep inside. Magnets allow smartphones to whisper in your ear, to leap into life with manic energy at a call or a push notification.
These whispers might be another robocall instead of sweet nothings, and that quivering push notification might be nothing more than another miserable breaking news headline. Still. In a world with diminishing opportunities for mystery and hope, allow me this small magnetic splendor.
Magnets inside most of today’s consumer electronics are a blend of neodymium, iron, boron, and a tiny bit of dysprosium (sometimes called “NdFeB magnets”). This is easy. But if we ask why these materials are so useful in small handheld devices, or why they’re used in massive industrial applications, the only alternative to a Feynman-style tirade is to assert that they simply are: they are really, really strong and they are really, really good at efficiently converting electrical into mechanical energy.
There’s NdFeB magnets in the motors of hybrid vehicles, and some, but not all, designs of wind turbines and MRI devices. They’re in hard disk drives. They lift heavy metal objects on factory floors and collect space dust off of the surface of Mars.
Beyond magnetic applications, neodymium is a component of Nd:YAG, one of the most commonly used lasers in ophthalmology. But if magnets are what took neodymium from a semi-obscure element in the rare earth family to a crucial component of building the future, we could point to one major use for magnets that made that happen: military technology.
We can try to explain why by telling a story about the Congo. In the 1970s, the best permanent magnets–powerful, stable, and capable of retaining their magnetic properties in high temperatures–were a cobalt-samarium blend. These magnets were used by the military in things like jet engines, microwave communications, and missile fin actuators. In 1977, it was reported that 60% of that cobalt came from Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo; more specifically from the Shaba province, a site of conflict ever since Belgium officially relinquished control of the area in 1960. Not long after independence, a separatist movement had declared the province the independent state of Katanga, part of the crisis which would lead to the downfall of Patrice Lumumba and the rise of Mobutu Sese Seko. Though the secession would be crushed, former Katangan fighters regrouped in Angola as the Front for Congolese National Liberation (FLNC). Between 1977 and 1978, the FLNC twice attempted to invade and “liberate” Katanga. Their second attempt was covered by Western media mainly in terms of the horrors experienced by hostages, the numbers of dead or evacuated, and the question of whether or not the Communists were behind what came to be called the “Kolwezi massacre.”
The official death count was called into question within days following the massacre, and remained uncertain. If Cuba and East Germany trained fighters in Angola, determining who caused the invasion would require “a framework in which we’ve allowed something prior to be true,” and we don’t have that; the sources most readily available tend to be founded on and riven by cold war disputes. It’s like the question of who killed Lumumba in the first place, allowing Mobutu’s rise to power. Though it’s now impossible to deny that the US and Belgian governments wanted his death, allocating proportionate blame to the countries that covertly bankrolled his opposition, those opposition forces that kidnapped and tortured him, and the firing squad that ultimately took his life assumes an agreed truth framework in which any one of those actors could be meaningfully held responsible.
But if why is hard, what is easier: as with the death of the Soviet-leaning Lumumba (with his threats to nationalize mining), the failed invasion, hostage-taking, and massacres helped solidify Western support for the rule of Zaire’s despotic president Mobutu Sese Seko, making him an indispensable conduit for the West’s continued access to cobalt, among other minerals. Meanwhile, a Washington Post story about the Soviets buying unusually large quantities of cobalt in the months leading up to the invasion helped produce an atmosphere of panic in the defense community over access to strategic materials. The Post story, which I found cited repeatedly but to the point it became apparent that there might be no other corroborating articles, is itself a little specious–the author notes that “At best, [metals] dealers can only guess that the 1978 purchases were abnormal“ relative to Soviet stockpiling that began in 1976. Regardless of the veracity of the claims of Soviet interference, a major price spike (from $8.50 a pound to as high as $45), continued instability, and unreliable transport infrastructure left Western cobalt markets spooked.
In this context, it became both a smart business play and a national security imperative to research alternative materials for producing powerful magnets that could withstand high temperatures. Two inventors developed neodymium magnets around the same time, in 1982, albeit using different metallurgical processes: Masato Sagawa of Sumimoto Special Metals in Osaka, Japan, and Jim Croat, of General Motors in the US. GM’s research would be spun out into a subsidiary called Magnequench, which would go on to produce materials for neodymium magnets for precision-guided missile servos and hard disk drives.
In 1986 when Magnequench first incorporated, the Chinese government established Program 863, a national initiative to stimulate and advance China’s tech sector and reduce reliance on foreign resources. Through the 1980s and 1990s, a combination of Chinese investment in new materials research and multinational deals led to a steady concentration of the rare earth industry in China, including the production of neodymium magnets. In 1995, GM sold Magnequench to a consortium of Chinese buyers and by 2004, they had moved all operations out of the country.
Today, the rare earth market is mainly familiar to Western audiences as the source of toxic sludge lakes slowly killing residents of Baotou, or as a source of domestic anxiety as Chinese dominance threatens access to critical materials, echoing the tone of many of those 1978 reports on securing cobalt. Cobalt demand continues to be a source of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but not for producing magnets; today, it’s a component of the lithium-ion batteries that, in theory, are key to bringing the world to a future of electric cars, smartphones for everyone, and an endless array of other battery-powered connected devices.
The full story of why and how neodymium became today’s magnet of choice, like Feynman’s explanation of magnetism, can’t be told without traversing a thicket of “whys.” Why did cobalt-samarium magnets reign supreme for so long? Why did magnet production and manufacture leave the United States? Why did China seek to dominate the rare earth market? Why did GM have an interest in developing permanent magnets that could serve the needs of the United States military? Why are magnets good for missiles? Why do weapons designs forever push toward greater precision and technological supremacy? Why get cobalt from Zaire? Why did the Belgians initially support the Katangan secession? Why did the CIA back and support Mobutu? Why did they keep supporting him? Why does almost every story about Mobutu’s legacy in English media take pains to reference Joseph Fucking Conrad’s fucking Heart of Darkness?!
Even this chain of questions assumes a more convenient causality than we are likely to find. For example, Masato Sagawa, the Japanese scientist who developed neodymium magnets in 1982, began his research in 1972 at Fujitsu, well before the Kolwezi massacre or the Cold War cobalt crisis. As Jim Croat recalled his time at GM’s research lab, he was working on developing powerful permanent magnets for car engines, not missile servos. Sagawa might have landed on his perfected neodymium magnet even if he hadn’t gone to Sumimoto in 1982, where his new employer gave him free rein and indefinite funding for magnet research. Maybe neodymium magnets would have happened without a Kolwezi massacre and a cobalt panic and a military-industrial complex. Maybe.
A basic, but still incomplete, answer for how magnets work is this: when electrons in the atoms of an object point in the same direction, they collectively generate a field that attracts or repels other objects with magnetic fields. When a material is “magnetized,” its electrons of varying orientations will reorient their direction in response to a strong magnetic field, creating a new magnetic field. But in addition to the directions the electrons point, for a material to have a strong magnetic field (permanently or temporarily) at least some of the electrons in an atomic orbital have to be “unpaired.” In most materials, electrons travel in pairs, and their individual magnetic fields cancel each other out.
This is where the quantum weirdness starts to come in: technically, all electrons and therefore everything has a little bit of magnetism. That magnetism is just amplified or diminished depending on the arrangements of electrons. And the reason for that inherent magnetism of all things isn’t something for which we have answers–at that level we might as well start asking “why electrons” or “why quantum mechanics.” It just is.
It would be easier to tell a story where a phone’s delicate whispers and magnetic whirrs are part of a big complicated history of war and colonialism and resource anxiety and death because that story appears to have answers. The media and advocacy narratives of conflict minerals and environmental destruction of rare earth element mining have primed readers to expect something sinister and uncouth beneath the surface of consumer electronics. “We have powerful magnets in phones today because a lot of people died in a town you’ve never heard of in the Congo in 1978”–sounds about right, you cynically reply. The debut of GPS on the public stage was as an instrument of precision bombing during the first Gulf War; the origins of the Internet are intertwined with Cold War paranoia and planning for nuclear collapse; cell phones are full of other people’s blood.
At this point unresolvable truths hidden in everyday objects don’t shock or wound so much as steadily accrue, like scar tissue or clinical depression. Neodymium becomes a familiar story easily added to the litany of ill-begotten scientific advances whose histories we learn to wearily live with.
I worry that leaning so hard on these familiar narratives also gives them power. It makes that cascade of cruelty seem inevitable, simply How Things Are Done rather than choices that were made. While the invisible hand of the market, the steamrolling inertia of colonial powers, or the march of technological progress can feel about as difficult to thwart or circumvent as the pull of neodymium magnets, I am wary of treating them like unbreakable laws of the universe.
But how to retain or demonstrate the possibility that there are other ways to build the world? How to articulate all of the other forces at play in building it–the ones that are harder to name, maybe closer to the bone, both too ephemeral and too particular?
Maybe this can be seen in another weirdly poetic facet of magnets: the fact that attraction and repulsion happen not with just one magnetic object acting upon another, but two magnetic fields mutually acting upon each other. Magnetism is an interaction of forces, not a static surrender to them. The magnet in my headphones doesn’t merely push forward electromagnetic pulses as audio waves; it is mutually pushed and pulled, in concert with a shifting magnetic field. Equal and opposite reactions persist; to live with hard truths does not have to mean establishing a framework in which you accept those truths as irreducible or inescapable. It can mean establishing a framework in which you push against those truths toward something else.
Ingredients is a regular Popula column, in which we explore the things that go into other things in order to become the things that they are.
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