Villain Science: The Magnetizing Magneto

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Something strange seems to be happening in Eastern Europe as of late. Something very, very strange. Something … magnetic. Recently circulated videos showcase the so-called magnetic children of Croatia and Serbia. One video shows 6-year-old Ivan Stoiljkovic’s bare chest covered in spoons and forks. In another video, 10-year-old Jelena Momcilov places a metal ladle against her “magnetic” palm, letting it dangle with her fingers outstretched.

So what is going on here? Are these “magnetic” children the first step toward a future of Magneto and Polaris flying around? Sorry to burst your bubble, X-Men fans, but Eastern Europe’s “magnetic” children are neither magnetic nor able to control magnetic fields. In fact, dust a little of Ivan’s arch nemesis talcum powder on his body and his magnetic power will suddenly evaporate. The same holds true for Jelena and every other individual on the long, long list of those claiming to have magnetic superpowers.

What is going on, scientists explain, is that skin is sticky and those metal objects are coming in contact with the skin’s natural friction. This explains why Jelena is also able to use her magnetic abilities to hold on to a mostly plastic cell phone and why another magnetic boy can attract china plates. 

Magnetizing Magneto

Claiming magnetic superpowers is not a new trend and viewing magnetic abilities as a superpower is not new either. The supervillain Magneto was first introduced to the X-Men comics in 1963 and he has been causing trouble for mutants and humans alike ever since. Magneto’s powers extend further than hanging spoons and forks on his body; he can generate and manipulate magnetic fields. His powers allow him to control metal, levitate himself and others, create force fields, use telepathic mind control, and generate electromagnetic pulses, among other abilities. 

A frog levitates thanks to the power of diamagnetism at the Nijmegen High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Netherlands.Suffice it to say, Magneto’s powers are not the result of sticky skin. Even as a fictional character, Magneto has a good amount of science backing up his magnetism. His ability to levitate himself and others, for example, is based on diamagnetism, when an object generates a magnetic field in opposition to an external magnetic field. Objects that are diamagnetic (like water molecules) try to cancel out the external magnetic field with an opposite magnetic field, causing a repulsive effect. The repulsion can be so great that it counteracts gravity, levitating the object. Because Magneto can manipulate magnetic fields, he can use diamagnetism to levitate himself and others. That’s in the fictional world though. Here in reality, diamagnetism has been used to levitate frogs, strawberries, and bugs. 

Another one of Magneto’s not-so-far-fetched powers is mind control through magnetic field manipulation. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a non-invasive research method that allows neuroscientists to stimulate or to temporarily shut down activity in specific regions of the brain. TMS induces weak electrical signals in brain neurons by applying rapid, random electromagnetic fields to selected regions of the brain. So theoretically, Magneto could use his magnetic field control to create brain activity or shut it off. 

Science blogger Quinn Norton holds an earth magnet with her magnet implant.Magnetic Fingertips

But what about individual control over magnetic fields? While it is possible to levitate small objects with a very large magnetic field or apply magnetic fields to the brain to control activity, neither of these are individual powers. But if you want to experience magnetism as an added sense, you could try implanting magnets into your fingers (although we do not suggest it). This radical approach  to individual magnetism involves a body modification artist slicing open the fingertip and inserting a rare Earth magnet encased in a silicone rubber coating (to prevent decay and tissue damage). 

Those that have undergone the procedure report their new sense as a vibration, tingling, or buzzing. The movements of the magnet hit against the sensitive nerves in their fingertips alerting them to electromagnetic fields. Science blogger Jawish Hameed (who recently celebrated two years with his magnetic implants) reports he can feel the magnetic field of a microwave from about a foot away. 

The magnet implants can also be used to pick up other magnetic materials but its uses beyond “sensing” magnetic fields are limited. It is a painful procedure with risks of infection or failure of the silicone coating. So, there goes your only chance to be Magneto. Though knowing there is a magnet capable of levitating a frog should cheer you up somewhat. And if that still does not help, you can always breathe on a spoon, place it on your nose, and pretend to be a magnetic superhero.

Photo Credits:

Top right: High Field Magnet Laboratory

Bottom left: Quinn Norton

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.