Ainissa Ramirez creates magnets with lightning

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author and a self-proclaimed “science evangelist.”  She is calling for big changes in science education and is the creator of a podcast series called “science underground.” Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Ramirez about one of her podcast episodes called called “creating magnets with lightning.”


Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author, and self-proclaimed science evangelist.

She is calling for big changes in science education and is the creator of a podcast series called 'Science Underground.'

Here to discuss one of her latest podcast episodes, called 'Creating Magnets with Lightning,' is Ainissa Ramirez.

I think of Ben Franklin with the key and the lightning.

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

That probably didn't happen, but it's still embedded somewhere.

It did happen.

It did happen.

He wrote a letter.

It's true. He did it.

[ Laughter ]


So, how -- you've got this --

What's all this?

Yeah, exactly.

So, here's a mineral.

It's called a lodestone.

It is magnetic.

I can put paper clips on it and it attaches to it.

Oh, that's cool.

And there are elements in the periodic table that are magnetic -- iron, cobalt, nickel.

But lodestones are really strong magnets, and scientists were like, 'Well, why are they so strong?'

And the evidence that they had that something was weird is that they're only found on the surface.

If you dig in the ground, you won't find a lodestone, and they're usually high up, too.

So, they're like, 'Something must be going on.'

Well, what's happening to the lodestone is that it has some iron in it, but it's being enhanced.

The magnetism is being enhanced when it's zapped with lightning.

A lightning strike.

A lightning strike.

So, if it was up high as you say, maybe up on top of a mountain, where there aren't any trees, or any sort of light comp-- tall height competitions.

That's right.

So, the lodestone gets the brunt of the lightning.

And what is the lightning doing to the iron that's in that rock already?

Well, the lightning has a magnetic field around it.

You can see, lightning and -- and -- electricity and magnetism are always in a dance with each other.

So, whenever there's lightning, there's magnetism.

I'll give you an example.

Here, I have -- you can do this at home.

Here's a sewing needle, and this sewing needle isn't particularly magnetic.


But if I rub it with this -- this magnet here, then it's able to pick up paper clips.

So what are -- what are you doing?

What are you doing to that --?

Well, what I'm doing is I'm making the iron that's already in this material, the iron that's already in the lodestone, I'm aligning them so that they become a stronger magnet.

And by rubbing it on this side, what's happening to it?

What it's doing is it's -- it's aligning the magnetic materials inside the needle.

The needle is made out of iron and carbon, and the iron is magnetic, but they're randomly arranged.

But when I have this magnetic field applied to it, what they do is they align those things --

And then the opposites from that to the -- attract.

That's right.

That's right.


So, I know it's a lot.

But the bottom line is that lightning has a magnetic field around it.

Got it.

And what it's doing is it's boosting the magnetic field that's already in this rock by aligning the magnetic particles inside of it, so that they can be enhanced.

Well, I mean, lightning's incredibly powerful.

That's right.

And how much, and from a random lightning bolt, or one of those beautiful photos that you see of the city of New York or something, getting a lightning bolt, how much power is in there when it actually zaps in --?

That's a good question.

And the thing is that it doesn't have to be struck by the lightning, it could be nearby.

The magnetic field is around the magnetic -- is around it.

But let me share with you that there's some guys at NASA -- guys and girls at NASA.

What they did is they actually tested this.

I talked to this gentleman, his name is Peter Wesolowski.

He's a retired NASA scientist.

He plays with lightning.

So, he got a stone that had iron it in, didn't -- wasn't particularly strong in terms of its magnetic abilities.

He put it in a box, he tied the box to a wire, shot the wire with a rocket into storm clouds...

'Cause, hey, you're NASA and you have rockets.

That's right. That's right.

You know, Ben Franklin has a kite, NASA has rockets.

And within like a couple of seconds, lightning went down the line, melted everything, and the rock was magnetic.

So, that was -- that was his evidence.

That's pretty good proof.

Ainissa Ramirez, thanks for joining us.

Thank you.