MAGNETISM AND MATTER – The Bar Magnet and Magnetic Field lines (NCERT 12TH PHYSICS)

Magnetic phenomena are universal in nature. Vast, distant galaxies, the tiny invisible atoms, humans and beasts all are permeated through and through with a host of magnetic fields from a variety of sources. The earth’s magnetism predates human evolution. The word magnet is derived from the name of an island in Greece called magnesia where magnetic ore deposits were found, as early as 600 BC. Shepherds on this island complained that their wooden shoes (which had nails) at times stayed struck to the ground. Their iron-tipped rods were similarly affected. This attractive property of magnets made it difficult for them to move around.

The directional property of magnets was also known since ancient times. A thin long piece of a magnet, when suspended freely, pointed in the north-south direction. A similar effect was observed when it was placed on a piece of cork which was then allowed to float in still water. The name lodestone (or loadstone) given to a naturally occurring ore of ironmagnetite means leading stone. The technological exploitation of this property is generally credited to the Chinese. Chinese texts dating 400 BC mention the use of magnetic needles for navigation on ships. Caravans crossing the Gobi desert also employed magnetic needles.

A Chinese legend narrates the tale of the victory of the emperor Huang-ti about four thousand years ago, which he owed to his craftsmen (whom nowadays you would call engineers). These ‘engineers’ built a chariot on which they placed a magnetic figure with arms outstretched. a subject in its own right.

Some of the commonly known ideas regarding magnetism are:

(i) The earth behaves as a magnet with the magnetic field pointing approximately from the geographic south to the north.

(ii) When a bar magnet is freely suspended, it points in the north-south direction. The tip which points to the geographic north is called the north pole and the tip which points to the geographic south is called the south pole of the magnet.

(iii) There is a repulsive force when north poles ( or south poles ) of two magnets are brought close together. Conversely, there is an attractive force between the north pole of one magnet and the south pole of the other.

(iv) We cannot isolate the north, or south pole of a magnet. If a bar magnet is broken into two halves, we get two similar bar magnets with somewhat weaker properties. Unlike electric charges, isolated magnetic north and south poles known as magnetic monopoles do not exist.

(v) It is possible to make magnets out of iron and its alloys.

We begin with a description of a bar magnet and its behaviour in an external magnetic field. We describe Gauss’s law of magnetism. We then follow it up with an account of the earth’s magnetic field. We next describe how materials can be classified on the basis of their magnetic properties. We describe para-, dia-, and ferromagnetism. We conclude with a section on electromagnets and permanent magnets.


One of the earliest childhood memories of the famous physicist Albert Einstein was that of a magnet gifted to him by a relative. Einstein was fascinated, and played endlessly with it. He wondered how the magnet could affect objects such as nails or pins placed away from it and not in any way connected to it by a spring or string.

We begin our study by examining iron filings sprinkled on a sheet of glass placed over a short bar magnet. The pattern of iron filings suggests that the magnet has two poles similar to the positive and negative charge of an electric dipole. As mentioned in the introductory section, one pole is designated the North pole and the other, the South pole. When suspended freely, these poles point approximately towards the geographic north and south poles, respectively. A similar pattern of iron filings is observed around a current carrying solenoid.

The magnetic field lines

The pattern of iron filings permits us to plot the magnetic field lines. This is shown both for the bar-magnet and the current-carrying solenoid. Electric field lines of an electric dipole are also displayed. The magnetic field lines are a visual and intuitive realisation of the magnetic field. Their properties are:

(i) The magnetic field lines of a magnet (or a solenoid) form continuous closed loops. This is unlike the electric dipole where these field lines begin from a positive charge and end on the negative charge or escape to infinity.

(ii) The tangent to the field line at a given point represents the direction of the net magnetic field B at that point.

(iii) The larger the number of field lines crossing per unit area, the stronger is the magnitude of the magnetic field B. B is larger around region ii than in region i .

(iv) The magnetic field lines do not intersect, for if they did, the direction of the magnetic field would not be unique at the point of intersection. One can plot the magnetic field lines in a variety of ways. One way is to place a small magnetic compass needle at various positions and note its orientation. This gives us an idea of the magnetic field direction at various points in space.

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