Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Magnetic Monopoles

If you could play with a handful of electric dipoles and a handful of bar magnets, they would appear very similar. For instance, a pair of bar magnets wants to align themselves head-to-tail, and a pair of electric dipoles does the same thing. (It is unfortunately not that easy to make a permanent electric dipole that can be handled like this, since the charge tends to leak.)

You would eventually notice an important difference between the two types of objects, however. The electric dipoles can be broken apart to form isolated positive charges and negative charges. The two-ended device can be broken into parts that are not two-ended. But if you break a bar magnet in half, (a), you will find that you have simply made two smaller two-ended objects.

The reason for this behavior is not hard to divine from our microscopic picture of permanent iron magnets. An electric dipole has extra positive "stuff" concentrated in one end and extra negative in the other. The bar magnet, on the other hand, gets its magnetic properties not from an imbalance of magnetic "stuff" at the two ends but from the orientation of the rotation of its electrons. One end is the one from which we could look down the axis and see the electrons rotating clockwise, and the other is the one from which they would appear to go counterclockwise. There is no difference between the "stuff" in one end of the magnet and the other, (b).

Nobody has ever succeeded in isolating a single magnetic pole. In technical language, we say that magnetic monopoles do not seem to exist. Electric monopoles do exist - that's what charges are.

Electric and magnetic forces seem similar in many ways. Both act at a distance, both can be either attractive or repulsive, and both are intimately related to the property of matter called charge. (Recall that magnetism is an interaction between moving charges.) Physicists's aesthetic senses have been offended for a long time because this seeming symmetry is broken by the existence of electric monopoles and the absence of magnetic ones. Perhaps some exotic form of matter exists, composed of particles that are magnetic monopoles. If such particles could be found in cosmic rays or moon rocks, it would be evidence that the apparent asymmetry was only an asymmetry in the composition of the universe, not in the laws of physics. For these admittedly subjective reasons, there have been several searches for magnetic monopoles. Experiments have been performed, with negative results, to look for magnetic monopoles embedded in ordinary matter. Soviet physicists in the 1960s made exciting claims that they had created and detected magnetic monopoles in particle accelerators, but there was no success in attempts to reproduce the results there or at other accelerators. The most recent search for magnetic monopoles, done by reanalyzing data from the search for the top quark at Fermilab, turned up no candidates, which shows that either monopoles don't exist in nature or they are extremely massive and thus hard to create in accelerators.

Last Update: 2009-06-21