The Secret History of Magnets: Finding the Human(ities) in the History of Science

Published by Aaron Kitch for Bowdoin Magazine
We all know that the force that closes your bag with that satisfying “click” is not the same force that draws you to another human being, but those notions of attraction were once one and the same.

A 3000-LEVEL SEMINAR I HAVE HAD THE PLEASURE OF TEACHING several times in the English department called The Arts of Science in the English Renaissance explores a period in which the humanities and the sciences were inextricably linked. Appropriately enough, students with backgrounds in literature and history join math, physics, and biology majors around the table to discuss works of literature that are about science, such as John Donne’s poems on astronomy and Francis Bacon’s utopian fiction New Atlantis, while also reading works of Renaissance science—including texts on astrology, alchemy, and anatomy—that prefigured later fields of study. One outcome of our course that is especially important in the wake of current concerns about the “death of the humanities” and the value of a liberal arts education is a new understanding of the “human” in relation to fields of knowledge we now call the “sciences.”

Take magnetism, for example. When we think of magnetism today, we probably don’t think about literature or divinity, yet early modern “natural philosophers” (whom we would now call “scientists”) found in magnets (also called “adamants” and “lodestones”) evidence of divine creation and a force of attraction coursing through nature. Because magnets are so prevalent in today’s world—from stereo speakers to refrigerators to electronic cigarettes—we have lost some of this earlier amazement, even though we may still wonder at the miracles of MRI machines or levitating high-speed trains. The very language of magnetism reveals a secret history that we ourselves often forget. For example, the French word for magnet, aimant, invokes the word aimer, “to love.” In Sanskrit, chumbaka means “the kisser,” while in Chinese the word for magnet is t’su shi, which translates as “the loving stone.” English speakers today may still describe the “magnetic attraction” that draws a couple together, while popular fashion magazines call attention to the “magnetic seduction” of a celebrity model on their covers and offer beauty tips inside their pages that promise to turn readers into sexual “magnets.”

It is entirely modern of us to find such attraction both appealing and controllable. Earlier cultures were much more skeptical. Consider Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Helena risks both mind and body in her pursuit of Demetrius through the forest outside of Athens. As she explains when she finally catches up to him, his own “hard-hearted adamant” has drawn her toward him against her will. The only way to stop the attraction, she observes breathlessly, is for him to turn off his magnetic “power.” The joke, of course, is that Demetrius can do no such thing, any more than Helena can stop being attracted to him. What we might think of as a fundamentally subjective emotion of love is for Helena an external and impersonal force.

The Book of Secrets describes magnets placed under pillows as a test of fidelity.

A similar dynamic informs the classical myth of Cupid, who turns ordinary mortals into possessive lovers using magical arrows shot at random or by divine instruction at unwitting victims. The resulting erotic entanglements often have disastrous consequences, as Ovid’s
Metamorphoses reminds us. Like Cupid’s arrows, magnetism bridges the worlds of human activity and natural forces—of the human and the inhuman but, unlike Cupid, magnets are also a part of the natural world. The history of magnetism in this sense has much to tell us about the history of humanity and its relation to nature, as well as about the history of the humanities in relation to science.

The hidden but powerful force that draws magnetized rocks toward one another or moves iron filings toward lodestones has attracted attention from natural philosophers, religious worshippers, and everyday observers of nature for centuries. The pre-Socratic philosopher Thales, for instance, argued that magnets demonstrated the “universal soul” of God in nature. About a century later, Plato refers to poetic inspiration as a type of magnetic attraction in his Ion dialogue. Around the same time, the Greek philosophy of atomism emerged, which was closer to what we would call “geology” and approached magnetism as a natural force operating without the intervention of the gods. The Greek atomist Democritus argued, for instance, that magnets emit particles or “effluvia” that carve out a void or vacuum in space, causing other objects to rush in. Similar accounts can be found in Aristotle and in the celebrated poem by Lucretius, “De rerum natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), which was rediscovered in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini, as explored by Stephen Greenblatt in his recent book The Swerve.

Atomism was a dangerous philosophy in Christian Europe not just because of its pagan roots, but also because it excluded a god of any kind from its account of the creation of the universe. The whirling atoms of Lucretius are eternal but dead, material but invisible, even as their chance combinations give rise to all forms of matter on earth. In a rebuttal to such godless materialism, the celebrated Roman natural philosopher Pliny depicted magnets as evidence of a “vitalistic” universe pulsing with divinity. Pliny goes so far as to describe magnets as having emotions and even hands to catch iron filings that “spring toward” it, catching them in tight “embraces.” He also describes a “hæmatites” magnet found in Ethiopia that produces blood- red fluid when struck. A similar account is in the Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus, which describes magnets placed under pillows as a test of fidelity, since such magnets purportedly caused faithful wives to embrace their husbands and push unchaste wives out of bed.

magnetism pagebreak web image
Magnets in this sense are not just analogies of human erotic life—they are also instances of what we now call sexuality. Many classical and early modern philosophers who described magnetic attraction understood it as a form of transhuman sexuality that defined the dispersed and universal attraction connecting humans to the world around them. Such a force was one of many that shaped human identity, including the stars and planets that astrologers and doctors used to determine bodily health and to make various predictions about the future. Even those like Epicurus, Democritus, and other atomists who denied divine agency in the creation of nature believed that such cosmological forces shaped everyday life on the planet. Some alchemists, 
for example, suggested that the sun bred life out of decaying matter based on their observation of maggots emerging spontaneously from the corpses of cows and other putrefying animals.

To call the desire of one human being for another “magnetic” was thus to acknowledge a basic truth about the cosmos and the relation between the human and the inhuman. But this relation was itself subject to change over time. The age of Shakespeare was also the age of the Scientific Revolution, marked by startling new discoveries in astronomy, anatomy, navigation, medicine, optics, and physics, among other fields.

william gilbert portrait
William Gilbert (1544 - 1603)
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

One of England’s most important contributions to these discoveries was made by the royal physician and student of navigation William Gilbert, whose study of magnetism (De magnete) was published in 1600. Gilbert, who also studied astronomy and mathematics, employed experiments with magnets and drew on the practical experience of English mariners. De magnete describes magnetism as a universal force of order and unity of the planet and indeed of all celestial objects. According to Gilbert, this magnetic “coition” literally holds the planet together and accounts for its ability to spin. In order to demonstrate these properties of magnets, Gilbert constructed a “terrella,” or “little earth,” in the form of a magnetized sphere with hand-carved ridges and crests that imitated the elevations of the earth’s topography. Criticizing the “ignorance of the ancients” as well as the false assumptions of alchemists and other natural philosophers of his own era, Gilbert posits magnetism as a powerful force implanted in the earth by the “wonderful wisdom of the Creator” that moves the earth in a circular motion “for the conservation, perfecting, and beautifying of its parts.” Gilbert was not just interested in practical applications of magnets in his influential study, which was read enthusiastically by Galileo and Keppler, among others. He also argued that magnetic coition differed from the physical “attraction” of electrical forces (as in rubbed amber emitting what we now call static electricity) because it could operate at a distance and was not interrupted by objects placed between the iron and the lodestone.

In explaining magnetism as an abstract cosmological force, Gilbert isolates it from the messy world of materiality and the body in which many earlier natural philosophers had placed it. In the process, he became one of the first in Europe to exclude humans from the study of magnetic attraction, anticipating the divide between the humanities and the sciences that accelerated in the seventeenth century.

As it happens, of course, Gilbert was not ultimately correct in his theory of magnetism. His experiments were difficult to reproduce, and some of his descriptions of the natural world were convoluted. Astronomers did not find evidence to support his account of magnetism as a celestial property. He was correct that there was a force of unity and order in the universe, but that force was gravity as described by Newton about eight decades after Gilbert’s death. Still, Gilbert’s work was prescient in many ways. The Scientific Revolution of Bacon, Descartes, Newton, and others sought to describe objective forces of nature that downplayed the links between the human and the inhuman found in earlier works of natural philosophy. If the language of nature, according to Newton and other members of the Royal Society, is the language of mathematics, then what room does nature have for the natural force of magnetism?

“The fact that we can still refer to eroticism as an impersonal magnetic force and seek to control that force implies that we are not quite as modern as we like to believe.”
Illustration by Gérard DuBois

Illustration by Gérard DuBois

Efforts to describe magnetism and other natural phenomena as laws of nature beginning in the seventeenth century also encouraged humans to assert greater autonomy over and against nature than they had in earlier periods. Collective efforts to understand natural forces such as magnetism in what we now call a “scientific” or objective manner produced new opportunities for control over them. One mantra of this proliferation of scientific discovery beginning in the seventeenth century, as Francis Bacon argued influentially, was utility—the unyielding imperative to press knowledge about nature into the service of human needs. Bacon’s privileging of inductive over deductive reason and his insistence that new knowledge could be developed only by conducting experiments to “vex Nature,” as he put it, inspired the formation of the Royal Society in 1660, where Isaac Newton was a member. Gilbert’s study of magnetism was an early example of what Bacon called “inductive” philosophy based on the physical operation of nature. (This did not stop Bacon from criticizing Gilbert in several pub- lished works for jumping to broad conclusions based on scanty evidence.)

The history of magnetism in its ancient and early modern forms reminds us how flexible the boundaries once were between self and universe, human and inhuman, and science and humanities.

The fact that we can still refer to eroticism as an impersonal magnetic force and seek to control that force implies that we are not quite as modern as we like to believe. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. The sciences have always been human, and the products of human culture have always intersected with scientific thought. Students in The Arts of Science in the English Renaissance learn to think critically about the relation between these writings and the categories of knowledge and practice in our world today. Understandably, the category of “literature” that was itself coming into being in the Renaissance bridges the objective and the subjective, the human and the inhuman, with little trouble, especially since such categories are more easily blended in Renaissance England than in later periods.

Like some of the authors we read together, my students in The Arts of Science in the English Renaissance recognize conflicting forces at work between “science” and “humanities” as fields of study. Such tensions are not easily resolved, but they have value precisely because they challenge us to be more attentive to some of the ways that our contemporary categories of knowledge have been shaped by the past. For example, they help us to understand that assumptions about the binary divide between science and humanities are themselves the product of history, including the experimental philosophy of Bacon and the mechanical philosophy of Descartes in the seventeenth century.

By discovering old links between these now divergent fields, Bowdoin students can also reconsider some of the tensions and contradictions in their broader coursework, not just in English but also in biology, chemistry, history, philosophy, and neuroscience. The expanding genres of literature in the English Renaissance—from the epic “Faerie Queene” of Spenser to the erotic and religious poetry of Donne, from the sonnet sequences of Wyatt and Sidney to the science fiction utopias of Bacon and Cavendish—both reflected and intervened in debates about “science” and the “humanities” in their day. In his metaphysical meditations on a new sun-centered universe, for example, Donne asserts a place for poetry in the study of astronomy, while Shakespeare’s Tempest uses the new technology of the professional theater to stage characters and ideas produced by travel writings about the New World. As we have seen, Shakespeare naturally thought about magnetism in describing romantic love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Donne went even further. He actually read Gilbert, and even challenged some of his conclusions, at least according to references to magnetism as a form of divinity in several of his works.

Illustration by Gérard DuBois

Illustration by Gérard DuBois

Early modern Europe had world enough and time for complex conjunctions between imaginative fiction and natural philosophy. It was also, of course, a place of extreme suffering due to poverty, disease, and relentless warfare. To read the history of science in and through the history of the humanities is not likely to produce easy nostalgia for the past. It is, rather, to consider a range of ideas in conflict that have had a lasting impact on our more modern world. The historical study of magnetism and desire is one of many stories about this impact.

I hope my students, in opening their minds to the complexities of the past, also reconsider the unfolding paths of the future. The history of magnetism, for example, explores questions about the relation between science and the humanities that have the potential to shape new and exciting fields of study that are as yet unimagined.

Something to think about the next time you connect the power cord to your laptop or put a magnet on your fridge.

Aaron Kitch is an associate professor of English at Bowdoin. He studies and writes about a range of genres of early modern literature drama as they intersect with discourses of political economy, sexuality, and natural philosophy. He is currently working on a book about Shakespeare and the interpretation of nature.

Gérard DuBois is a French painter, illustrator and artist. Based in Montreal, his work has appeared in such publications as the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Fall 2018 Bowdoin Magazine cover


This story first appears in the Fall 2018 issue of Bowdoin Magazine

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