The Science of Magneto

Warning: I am not a physics major. My understanding of this subject is that of a layman. So if anyone who does understand Physics better than I has any corrections or additions, please (Please!) feel free to contact me and I will correct/update the page with credit.

Ignoring the fact that in our less colorful real world no one has superpowers, just what would controlling electromagntism give one control over? What would you be able to do and what wouldn't you be able to do? In terms of real world science, how powerful is Magneto?

Contrary to the belief of more casual fans (usually those that came by way of the movies), Magneto does a lot more than throw metal around. Magneto controls electromagnetism. Electromagnetism is one of the Four Fundamental Forces of the Universe (another link can be found here). Current theory in physics states that all the energies in the universe can be categorized under four forces: Gravity (which holds our feet to the planet and keeps the planets and such in orbit), Strong Nuclear Force (which holds the nuclei of atoms together and is released in a nuclear explosion), Weak Nuclear Force (which is the force that causes radioactive decay), and Electromagnetism, which controls pretty much everything else.

That’s right, electromagnetism is one of the obvious and ubiquitous forces we see in day to day life. From the electricity used in all of our modern technology, to shape of the solar winds, to the cohesion of matter, the electrochemical signals of the nervous system, electromagnetism is responsible for them all.

As noted in the name, electromagnetism is both electricity and magnetic energy. The two energies are distinct, and yet they are obviously closely intertwined. Electricity affects magnetism and magnetism affects electrify. A compass needle will be reflected by a moving electric current such as a lightning strike, and lightning is attracted to ferrous metal. Revolving magnets (alternating the varying intensities of magnetic fields) are used in generators to create electricity, while running an electric current around a piece of metal will create an electromagnet. When an electric charge is in motion, it creates and therefore is influenced by magnetic fields. Because Magneto is sensitive to and controls magnetic fields, he can generate and control electricity with great detail and strength. Hence he can control machines like security cameras and advanced weapons with no external keyboard or switches merely by routing the electricity the way he wants, and can sense when his data banks of his computers are being disrupted from a distance (Uncanny X-Men #150). Someone like Storm throwing lightning at Magneto is simply handing him a weapon since he controls the very forces that generate electricity (Uncanny X-Men #104, Uncanny X-Men #150).

Magneto’s control over non-ferrous materials, from metals like gold to ceramincs to organic matter, is also accomplished through magnetism. Protons, neutrons and electrons all have magnetic fields that interact to hold the atom together, the positive charges of the protons governing the number of negatively charged electrons orbiting the nucleus and therefore dictating the type of atom it is. The exchange of the negatively charged electrons between the positively charged nuclei of atoms is what creates molecules. These magnetic fields seem minuscule, but their combined strength is so strong that they overcome the forces of gravity. Hence the reason you do not simply fall through the ground into the center of the earth. The electromagnetic bonds between the atoms of you feet are repelled by the electromagnetic bonds of the atoms of the ground. These small magnetic fields cause a non-ferrous substance to be either paramagnetic or diamagnetic.

A ferrous metal is termed (obviously) a “ferromagnetic” substance. The magnetic fields of the atoms a bar of iron or nickel align with either neighboring atoms within the iron or nickel. But when placed near or within a strong magnetic field, the magnetic fields of the atoms align themselves with the outside magnetic field and retain that alignment. Hence a piece of iron can be turned into a magnet and will remain stuck to your refrigerator for years. In a "paramagnetic" substance such as aluminum or oxygen molecules, the magnetic fields of atoms temporarily align themselves with a stronger magnetic field. However once that field is removed the atoms of a piece of aluminum immediately go back to their natural state (assuming the aluminum is at room temperature). A "diamagnetic" substance, such as water (which makes up 75% of our bodies), has magnetic fields within its atoms that align opposite to any external magnetic field. Hence if Magneto wants to levitate or control the body of a human being, or as scientists in the real world have done, a frog, he would apply strong magnetic fields in opposition to the way he wanted the person or Kermit to move.

Theoretically, it would seem to be possible for a strong and detailed enough magnetic field to manipulate these small magnetic fields within the atoms themselves to manipulate matter on an atomic scale as Magneto has already done. He did so with both ferromagnetic matter (healing Colossus in Uncanny X-Men #212) and diamagnetic matter (dissipating the water of an icicle Kitty speared through his chest in X-Men Vol. 2 #87). A third use of his powers on this scale was when Magneto "first" discovered ths ability in Classic X-Men #19, though it is unclear what type of material he was working with at that time.

Magneto has also controlled the human body’s electrochemical signals, most notably in Uncanny X-Men #304 in which he froze the entire X-Crew in place and prevented them from accessing their powers. The nervous system of the body works by sending electro-chemical signals. The cells in the brain and the nervous system, the neurons, generate a chemical signal that when it reaches the synapse between the neurons, becomes an electrical pulse or signal transmitted by charged atoms of calcium, sodium or potassium. This signal is picked up by the receiving neuron, read, and transferred into a chemical message which travels to the other side of the neuron to repeats the process of being transferred into a electrical signal, jumping the gap, and so on to exchange the information with each neuron down the line. These moving electrical currents create magnetic fields just as they do everywhere else. Given that these are electrical signal, despite their miniscule size, it is feasible for Magneto to disrupt the system. Given experimenting and experience, it is even possible for him to disrupt the signals with specific effects.

This may also be the key to Magneto’s much debated telepathic abilities. As we know in modern medical science, the neurons of the brains put off electromagnetic waves which can be detected by equipment, Magneto himself may be capable of detecting them. He is not as adept at reading them a true telepath like Xavier, who brain is probably specially modified to interpret the signals. But with sufficient practice is it feasible Magneto can maintain his brain’s operational integrity against a telepathic assault as he has when battling Xavier on many occasions, or even be sensitive and experienced enough to pick up extreme focused thoughts, as he did the New Mutants collective nightmares in New Mutants Vol. 1 #38. (It is possible that his own experiences with death helped him to be able to interpret the nightmare in which the New Mutants symbolically relived their own death at the hands of the Beyonder. Their feelings echoed a chord in Magnus’ personal experience that he was able to connect to in a way he never had before.)

Magneto’s ability to manipulate electromagnetic energies is not merely limited to magnetism and electricity. He has also shown control over most of the electromagnetic spectrum. The electromagnetic spectrum is the collection of various radiations that stem from EM energy, having properties of both electricity and magnetism in motion, specifically in varying frequencies of oscillation, or size and speed of waves. These energies are: radio waves, microwaves, terahertz radiation, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays. Ergo Magneto can generate or manipulate radio signals, generate heat (Uncanny X-Men #104), sense heat signatures, manipulate light to make himself invisible (Vision and the Scarlet Witch miniseires Vol. 1 #4), use UV energy to break chemical bonds (though he usually used his own power over the magnetic fields within atoms to do so), and reflect the x-rays and gamma rays produced by nuclear explosions (X-Men Vol. 2 #1, X-Men Vol 2 #86).

Magneto should also be able deflect the solar winds (perhaps a variant of Marvel’s nebulous “cosmic energy”) as the Earth’s own magnetosphere does. He should be able to shape the northern/southern lights, which is the solar wind reflecting off the atmosphere at the poles (a rather romantic image). Because the solar winds travel along magnetic clines of force, it is theoretically possible for Magneto to shape and focus that energy and matter into something more damaging. However, contrary to popular belief (and the premise set forth by Morrison in Planet X) flipping the magnetic poles is unlikely to have a catastrophic effect on the world. The Earth has already gone through several such pole reversals without any major extinction events coinciding with them and we are already in the beginning stages of pole reversal now. The process of pole reversal is so slow, it is unlikely even our technology would even be affected.  

One of Magneto’s most recent feats was to create a “pocket wormhole” between Gensoha and New York in Excalibur Vol. 3 #7 & 8 and Avengers Disassembled. This is a manipulation of space-time and is theoretically possible given current theories of General Relativity, Quantum Physics, and String Theory. In current theory, Lorentzian traversable wormholes would be possible if the space was held open by “exotic matter”, a type of hitherto unknown particle, or by “negative mass cosmic strings”. In Classic X-Men #19, Magneto says "My discoveries during the last week alone have revolutionaized particle physics. Any one of them would be enough to earn me the Nobel Prize and a place amoung the giants of scientific history. If I cared to claim it." So it is possible that Magneto has discovered this “exotic matter”. From my limited understanding, what does seem to be required to create such a wormhole is the ability to manipulate gravity. However, in the past Magneto has been able to manipulate gravity (New Mutants Vol.1 #35, Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Deluxe Edition #7)

One of Magneto's more common defenses which is theoretically possible are his magnetic shields, which are currently being discussed and experimented with in scientific circles as protection from various radiations in space. However, it is unclear whether or not these shields would be impenetrable to non-ferrous objects, like the Hulk’s fist.

The one trick Magneto has pulled on a number of occasions that is outside the realm of real science is “manipulating iron in the blood”. When the iron atoms in the hemoglobin of one’s bloodstream bonds with the oxygen your body so desperately needs, its magnetic field is cancelled out. While there would be some iron in your body that is not bonded to oxygen, it is certainly not enough to create the effects we have seen in the comics. (However, given the means Magneto has of controlling organic matter and the human body listed above, it's kind of a moot point.)

For those interested in science in the world of comic books, or those just looking for a fun informative read, I heartily recomend The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios.