Any object that exhibits magnetic properties is called a magnet. Every magnet has two points, or poles, where most of its strength is concentrated; these are designated as a north-seeking pole, or north pole, and a south-seeking pole, or south pole, because a suspended magnet tends to orient itself along a north-south line. Since a magnet has two poles, it is sometimes called a magnetic dipole, being analogous to an electric dipole, composed of two opposite charges. The like poles of different magnets repel each other, and the unlike poles attract each other.
One remarkable property of magnets is that whenever a magnet is broken, a north pole will appear at one of the broken faces and a south pole at the other, such that each piece has its own north and south poles. It is impossible to isolate a single magnetic pole, regardless of how many times a magnet is broken or how small the fragments become. (The theoretical question as to the possible existence in any state of a single magnetic pole, called a monopole, is still considered open by physicists; experiments to date have failed to detect one.)
From his study of magnetism, C. A. Coulomb in the 18th cent. found that the magnetic forces between two poles followed an inverse-square law of the same form as that describing the forces between electric charges. The law states that the force of attraction or repulsion between two magnetic poles is directly proportional to the product of the strengths of the poles and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
As with electric charges, the effect of this magnetic force acting at a distance is expressed in terms of a field of force. A magnetic pole sets up a field in the space around it that exerts a force on magnetic materials. The field can be visualized in terms of lines of induction (similar to the lines of force of an electric field). These imaginary lines indicate the direction of the field in a given region. By convention they originate at the north pole of a magnet and form loops that end at the south pole either of the same magnet or of some other nearby magnet (see also flux, magnetic). The lines are spaced so that the number per unit area is proportional to the field strength in a given area. Thus, the lines converge near the poles, where the field is strong, and spread out as their distance from the poles increases.
A picture of these lines of induction can be made by sprinkling iron filings on a piece of paper placed over a magnet. The individual pieces of iron become magnetized by entering a magnetic field, i.e., they act like tiny magnets, lining themselves up along the lines of induction. By using variously shaped magnets and various combinations of more than one magnet, representations of the field in these different situations can be obtained.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.