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To begin, you’ll need to find some magnetic coins containing iron or nickel. Sadly, U.S. coins are not magnetic, except for the 1943 penny, which was made of steel. Even the U.S. nickel, which is currently made of a 75/25 blend of copper and nickel is not measurably magnetic.
I have some Indian coins, one Hongkong half dollar and other change to conduct this experiment.
To prepare the stage, lay a ruler across two stacks of books, or two bottles as in the video. Put a strong magnet on top of the center of the ruler, with the poles aligned vertically: north pole up and south pole down, or vice versa. You may also stick another magnet under the ruler if you need more field strength. To get the right field strength for your coin stack, you will want to be able to adjust the height of the magnet, or alternatively adjust the height of the platform that the coins rest on. Resting the ruler on stacks of books of a chosen height works well for this purpose.
Stick one coin on top of another and the third one with the magnet. Slowly, pull them down towards the wine glass and balance them on the glass.
what’s going on?
Certain ferromagnetic elements, notably iron and nickel, can become magnetized when placed in an external magnetic field. See our lesson on Iron and Magnets for further discussion of how magnetization works. Many steel or nickel-based coins fall into this category. When these magnetic coins become magnetized, they can stick to each other to form elaborate towers.
By suspending the coin tower underneath a strong magnet, the coins remain magnetized and continue to stick to each other, and the magnet helps support the stack against the force of gravity. The magnet pulls hardest on the topmost coin, which is closest, and helps stretch out the coin stack to keep it from folding.
questions to ponder
Why doesn’t the topmost coin jump up to the magnet, which is stronger, rather than stick to the magnetized coins below it, which are weaker?
The magnet above is stronger, but it is farther away. As long as the top coin is touching the coins below, it will stick to them.
Why does the coin stack tend to orient in a plane along the ruler? Why does it prefer that direction rather than other directions?
As long as you are using an asymmetric magnet, like a block magnet, the field is likely to be spread out along the long axis of the magnet, which you probably oriented along the ruler. The coin stack is also laid out in a plane, and the field from the coin stack is also spread out in the direction of the plane. Those two planes will tend to pull on each other until they are aligned. If you replace with asymmetric magnet with a perfectly cylindrical magnet, the coin stack will no longer have a preferred direction.
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