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Magnets, how they work


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Maybe you are confused. Asking why, when you observe something in physics, is a very good question. One that is still being asked about magnetism. It's never silly to ask why. In regards to physics.


What is silly, is thinking you don't need to answer the question.

Where is the being capable of intent who is the causal agent inducing magnetism? Until such a being is shown to exist, 'why?' is indeed a silly question.

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It's never silly to ask why.


Perhaps. There are two closely related meanings for "why". One is an explanation of purpose or a reason, as in "why were you late?". The implication of reason can be applied to inanimate objects, as in "why does a nail stay stuck in the wood?". It seems a reasonable enough question, but one that cannot fully be answered. Of course, the nail is held there because of friction and the compressibility and elasticity of wood. And each of those has a reason. But if you keep asking "why?", you eventually get to a point where you must simply accept that things are such.


As for science, it really isn't about "why?" although many seem to think so. Science is about "how". This can be seen most clearly from Newton's description of gravity, which was essentially "This is the formula that will give you the gravitational force. But don't ask me why the objects attract each other." Quantum mechanics is even worse -- the formulas work, but in most people's view none of it makes sense. All science is like that, even the example of the nail -- what science can do is explain how the properties of the nail and wood allow the wood to hold the nail, not really why it ought to be so. Ultimately, science can only answer "why" questions by giving "how" answers.

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If the nail doesn't stay in the wood, you can be sure the scientific question will be 'why'? Asking why is the essential question, when faced with something that can't be explained. Or something that CAN be explained, but you don't understand yet.


Returning to the nail that won't stay. After 'why' has been answered, the next question might be something like, "Well how can we fix that?".

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"Why does the nail stay in the wood?"

"How does the nail stay in the wood?"

"What is happening when the nail stays in the wood?"


Since a final cause agent would indeed be a silly addition, I would just assume those three questions are soliciting the same type of response (or responses, as the case may be). In cases that don't involve intent (like with nails, or magnets), either there is no distinction between "why questions" and "how questions," or "why questions" are meaningless, depending on how pedantic you're willing to be.

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With all my respect:


1. he didn't answer the question (intentionally).

2. when you ask a vague question you get a vague answer.

3. as a journalist never ask a scientist "why": he will go into philosophying.

4. as a scientist, never use a paradigm taken from the behaviour of a living organism in order to explain a physical phenomena. (the journalist was unaware of that, or too respectuous).

5. the "I cannot explain in terms that you will understand" is to be understood as "I am the smart guy who knows and you are the dumb guy who don't" but we knew that in the first place. Nobody doubts that Mr Feynman is very smart.


In the end, the whole interview has reached its goal: show how intelligent he is & how dumb we are. The OP had the same purpose.


He did answer the question, however he may not have done it in a very strait forward manor. Instead he did it in a much better manor.

In order for Feynman to accurately explain the idea of why magnets repel to the layman he had to first build a framework of accepted ideas. Then upon the framework he can build and describe the properties of the forces at work with a concept that is understood by both.


imagine trying to sell a foreigner an apple. first you need to build a framework of agreements so both sides are understood clearly. then you can proceed to sell the apple.

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Why/how is either of the following questions better than the other?


1) Why is "how" a better question than "why?"

2) How is "how" a better question than "why?"


Don't the two meanings conflate according to the context of usage? I think the only reason people have eschewed "why" questioning is in the context of giving a reason for nature to work the way it does. They just think, "because that's the way nature works . . . and this is HOW."

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We know how nature works. (...)


I have serious doubts. I think we are overestimating our knowledge.


What is really interesting is why.


"Why" is a silly question when you cannot answer it, and a very interesting one when you can.

Edited by michel123456
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We know how nature works. What is really interesting is why.


What do you think the difference is? Give an example.


(Also, there's a great deal we don't know about how nature works, even with a generous usage of "know.")



"Why" is a silly question we you cannot answer it, and a very interesting one when you can.


I know that you're being sarcastic, but that's actually true. Why is a silly question when there's no meaningful answer. But if by "why" you just mean "what is happening," then it's always interesting if you go deep enough.

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We know how nature works. What is really interesting is why.


I'd say we have some idea about how nature works. Science doesn't ultimately investigate why. When you get down to the basics, there is no claim that any science model is reality, only that it describes how nature behaves. Lots of things in physics, like fields and energy and quantum states and a whole lot more, are calculational and conceptual conveniences. They help us solve problems and give us a framework to understand what might happen under different conditions. Their use is not a claim that they are the actual underlying processes; even if some people make that philosophical step, it usually doesn't cause problems.

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It seems to me that much of science is basically the effort to push back the how/why barrier.


Many concepts that in my youth were documented but not explained are now well understood BUT the underlying causation is now in the state of being measured but it is yet unable to be fully conceptualised theoretically.

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From http://www.coolmagnetman.com/maghow.htm


Only when you play with (observe) them will you begin to understand how they work. This is the stuff great scientific pioneers did, like Faraday, Lenz, Gilbert, Henry and Fleming.


What we can find out this way, is some of the basics of magnetism, like:


* the north pole of the magnet points to the geomagnetic north pole (a south magnetic pole) located in Canada above the Arctic Circle.

* north poles repel north poles

* south poles repel south poles

* north poles attract south poles

* south poles attract north poles

* the force of attraction or repulsion varies inversely with the distance squared

* the strength of a magnet varies at different locations on the magnet

* magnets are strongest at their poles

* magnets strongly attract steel, iron, nickel, cobalt, gadolinium

* magnets slightly attract liquid oxygen and other materials

* magnets slightly repel water, carbon and boron


and so on


Now, the fun begins. We start to ask the question, "Why?" This is what scientists continually do - try to figure out why things behave the way they do. Once we figure that out, we have a better handle on how to apply them to make useful tools for us, right?


Let me share with you some of what is known about how magnets work. All of the questions have NOT been answered, perhaps you will help answer some of them. So, some of what is known are simply observations, some are guesses, but a lot has been figured out.


Emphasis mine.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Well, ok then. I don't think what you quoted is making a good distinction. "How" seems to be what is happening on the large scale, and "why" what is happening on the small scale. This makes sense intuitively since we generally use them on a large scale, and the large scale is a cumulative effect of small scale stuff, but ultimately the distinction is arbitrary and not fundamental.


That's kind of what I was getting at. "Why" and "how" are different ways of framing a question, but if you keep going deep enough you realize they're all just "what" questions.

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Why would you say that?


Observing nature can lead to an understanding of what is happening. We may even determine how nature works. Is it just a linguistic problem when we ask 'why'? Examples abound, but sticking with magnets, asking why they attract each other is certainly valid.

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