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I asked a similar question earlier: What would happen if electricity stopped working?. But I was also thinking about what would happen if magnets stopped working. This question is very related to what things need magnetic fields to work. For example:

  • compasses
  • refrigerator magnets

However, the big problem would be the lack of electromagnets, which are used in:

  • motors (therefore mass transit, cars, planes, boats...)
  • heavy lifting (for construction)
  • generators (hydroelectric, wind, ...)

Would there be any wide-spread implications of such a disaster?

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Only man-made magnets? All magnets? All magnetism? You should be more specific about what stops working. – Rob Watts Jan 21 at 18:49
A lot of Juggalos would suddenly feel justified... ("Answer? They don't!") – Darrel Hoffman Jan 21 at 19:31
You can't eliminate magnetism without eliminating electric fields. And if electrons and protons suddenly don't have charge, then the entire universe collapses due to the loss of a fundamental force. – Carl Witthoft Jan 21 at 20:08
Aww man, I hate it when the universe falls apart. :P – AMACB Jan 21 at 20:23
You posted a universe destruction question to world building. Building!! Building!! – corsiKa Jan 21 at 22:59
up vote 55 down vote accepted

We all die. Slow painful deaths.

if Magnetic fields quit working, the biggest problem is the one the Earth is producing to protect us from a bunch of solar radiation. Remember the borealis? That is a visual reminder of the protection provided. It also helps keep our atmosphere from slowly being torn away by the solar winds.

Magnetic fields also are instrumental in generating the vast majority of our electricity. So we would probably mostly starve to death (large populations, not every single person) before we die of radiation poisoning or cancer.

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The question is about magnets, not magnetic fields. – Daniel Jan 21 at 20:17
@Daniel I hate to say it, but there's no such thing as magnets that don't have magnetic fields. If you want to put it in terms of magnets, the Earth is a magnet, and if it stops working as a magnet it loses its magnetic field, and then [insert bowlturner's answer here]. – corsiKa Jan 21 at 22:58
While nothing in this answer is wrong, it would be worse, by far! Electromagnetism is one of the fundamental interactions. It has a role in how atoms assamble, align, interact and so on. It's reasonable to say that, without electromagnetism, we would collaps or burst instantaneously. – Sempie Jan 22 at 6:46
Time to death from acute radiation poisoning may be 4-8 weeks, or possibly sooner (click on other doses for different timeframes): – Andrew Grimm Jan 22 at 11:21
@Daniel The only way that magnets could stop working is by ceasing to have magnetic fields. – EJP Jan 22 at 16:04

If you're talking about ALL magnetism, the answer is pretty boring - everyone and everything immediately and literally falls apart.

Electrons are bound to the nuclei of atoms through the electromagnetic force, so without magnetism electrons would fly off.

Sharing of electrons is what binds different atoms together into molecules.

Protons would not push against each other, so larger atomic nuclei should be more stable. The strong and weak nuclear forces would still be in play, so I'm not exactly sure how they'd behave.

So without magnetism, all electrons go whizzing off, all molecules fall apart, and the nuclei of the approximately 10^50 atoms in the Earth all clump together, potentially forming a single atom with atomic number of somewhere around 10^51.

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"Protons would not push against each other..." Protons push against each other because of electric force, not magnetic. – Daniel Jan 21 at 20:18
You could eliminate magnetic forces without eliminating electric forces by making the speed of light be infinite. But that comes with its own problems; see my answer here. – Michael Seifert Jan 21 at 20:21
@Daniel magnetic force = electric force. – Rob Watts Jan 21 at 20:24
Actually, protons are bound together because of the strong nuclear force. Atomic nuclei would still stay together. I think @Daniel's right here in that they would not be affected. – HDE 226868 Jan 22 at 2:01
@HDE226868 I was trying to say that if anything, they'd become more stable. – Rob Watts Jan 22 at 6:16

Electric force, magnetic force, and light is all one thing. Kill that and you shut down all electromagnetic radiation and the binding force that makes atoms and molecules.

In short, that's what happened to the dark matter that turns out to be far more common than our stuff. Somehow this little bit escaped that fate, so be careful!

Electromagnetism and the weak nuclear interaction are unified at high energy scales. The electoweak force breaks down and forms different phenomena in our regime. So maybe space can tunnel into a lower true vacuum state in which electromagnetism breaks down and is replaced by a plurality of different separate things.

Interpretations of the Idea

The magnetic force in general is all one thing with the electric force and light. The two forces are literally one thing if seen in 4D spacetime: a pure electric field like the charge of an electron sitting in space will be seen to be partly a magnetic field to a moving observer. In fact, you can deduce magnetism must exist simply by applying relativistic effects to moving charges.

So you can't just say magnetism in general is gone and static electric forces are not, without seriously rewriting the universe to be based on Galileo's universal time as opposed to special relativity.

You would lose the electric force, and there go atoms, etc. as pointed out in other questions. I'm sorry to see that the question evolved to clarify in this direction!

A much less impossible situation ripe with plot potential is to leave the forces alone and just target permanent magnets. Magnetism exists and must exist if electric charges exist and move, or even if the don't move because they still have quantum spin and orbital angular momentum while being stationary!

Every electron is a magnet. Normally in bulk they cancel out, not only because of random orientations but because loose magnets will push each other into orientations to better cancel out. But it is some subtle quirks that allow for magnetic domains in permanent magnets. For other reasons it is energetically favorable for the unpaired electrons to line up. The potential energy this causes is more than paid for by savings elsewhere, and finding such circumstances in the crystalline arrangement of a metal grain is why you get magnetic domains and ferromagnetism.

So a plot device would be an alien weapon using nanotechnology or control over subtle fields we don't know about, or a natural phenomenon that changes the subtle interactions and prevents this situation from finding an energetically favorable solution. Magnetic domains in ordinary metals become unstable just as if it were heated above the curie point, and magnets no longer become a thing at our everyday environment, temperature, and pressure.

Plot Potential

You can have a vague idea of "permanent magnets stop working" but lots of loopholes, special rules, and exceptions. If it's based on nanotech, you can have quarantine formulations that resist the attack. If a field of some kind you can find the new rules of energy levels and build technology that works under those new conditions.

Without exceptions and special pleading which is specific to the mechanisms you invent for the phenomenon, you still have the situation where common metal magnets fall off the 'fridge, but electromagnets still work… if you can manage to start a current flowing without using magnets, as explored in some of the other answers. And you might still have some exotic materials like ceramics that manage to still work or work very weakly.

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Electricity generation would have to turn to other methods: Thermal, solar, chemical. So a global shift in power generation would need to take place ASAP since most power grids use spinning magnetic turbines (oil, coal, hydro or nuclear powered) to generate electricity.

Electric motors wouldn't work, so we'd basically have to return to steam engines or man(horse) power.

The earth's magnetic field protects us from deadly cosmic radiation, so we'd have to figure out how to protect ourselves.

If this is something that happened overnight, it would basically be an apocalypse-level event. Basically everything would stop. All manufacturing, all agriculture, all transport, all communication. There would be widespread panic and death.

Also, the molecules atoms of all of the noble gases (helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon) are all held together by electromagnetic attraction. So those element would cease to exist. (which also begs the question of if any matter would survive without magnetism I suppose. I'm not a chemist, so I'm not sure)

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My thoughts exactly ;) – katzenhut Jan 21 at 18:40
"molecules of all of the noble gases" - this doesn't make sense. Noble gases don't form molecules. – Rob Watts Jan 21 at 19:07
@RobWatts I guess I meant atoms, not molecules! :) My chemistry is a bit rusty! – fiend Jan 21 at 19:13
"we'd have to figure out how to protect ourselves"... not so much. That cosmic radiation (deadly and otherwise) are E-M waves. Take away magnetism, and the radiation is gone. Protecting yourself from the sudden cold, on the other hand... – Ben Voigt Jan 22 at 5:40
@RobWatts - It was 1962 when the first noble gas compounds were observed. You're a little behind the times :) – Jimbo Jonny Jan 23 at 20:43

Well, if magnetism stopped working, magnetic induction would stop working. ( So there would be no more electrical power except from solar cells and chemical recations. Basically society would be back to steam as a means of energy transportation.

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Since most everybody went the other way I will say assume there is some kinda magical change in how electrons in ferrometals interact with the world causing them to be unable to be magnetized. So Electromagnetism still works as a force but there is no way to make a permanent or electro magnets.

1) compasses stop for two reasons. We quickly remember stellar navigation.

2) electric motors and dynamos all stop working electricity goes out for everything but batteries, solar and [some] geothermal. Starters in gasoline cars no longer work. Most diesels are fine but before long the headlight go out. the trains still chug along but the switching is kaput.

3) Cancer and some warming from all the ionized particle no longer blocked by the earth's former magnet.

4) Speakers, headphones and whatnot no longer work but Victrolas still do. Flash drives still work hard drives and tape are all blank. Most flat screen will be fine but CRTs will not be able to focus or scan. credit cards will need to be typed in manually. Radios and phone work except for the speakers which don't. Microwaves, fridges and a lot of switches don't work any more. But most toaster are fine as your tablet. (if you have batteries, Solar, power cells or thermocouples for them)

We would be set back to the 19th for most things including agriculture and manufacturing. We would survive.

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geothermal source electricity would stop, too - the heat is still used to turn electromagnetic turbines like they do in coal and nuclear power stations, and in windmills. Solar power electricity would still work, though. – HorusKol Jan 22 at 3:14
Geothermal thermocouples would still work but yeah anything based on dynamos is no go. – King-Ink Jan 22 at 3:33
The Earth's magnetic field is not caused by perminant magnets. At that temperature an iron magnet wouldn't work already! It is simply due to the fluid being conductive. It would still be OK. – JDługosz Jan 22 at 7:47
Dynamos: as a general synonym for generator, I understand. But as the specific type that works kike a Universal Motor in reverse, they don't rely on perminant magnets! Those (and universal motors) would still work. – JDługosz Jan 22 at 7:49
This thread is interesting, but note that it's different from the (edited) question. – JDługosz Jan 22 at 7:51

A lot of people talk about how the earth's magnetic shield, or the fabric of the universe itself, would fall apart if there were no electromagnetic force.

However, let's examine the simple case of magnets not working. I don't mean electromagnetism, but just the magnets we use in society. Also, let's suppose the Earth's core remains magnetic, so we don't all die shortly thereafter.

So what happens?

  1. All items held on refrigerators by magnets immediately fall to the floor.
  2. compasses, stick/holding magents, electric motors, a fair number of electronics (which have magnetic parts), and electrical transmission (the power grid, which relies on transformers) would cease to work. Most if not all vehicles would stop running (airplanes and ships), while smaller boats and vehicles require electric starters. Though, it might be possible to mechanically turn a combustion engine to start; I don't understand those that well.
  3. We would have to re-write our understanding of physics, because either we missed something big that we have to account for, or we fundamentally misunderstood electromagnetism. This might be a change like Einstein's relativity versus Newton's laws of mechanics. We would need toexplain why little magnets became no longer magnetic, but yet why the universe still holds together, and the planet's core was still magnetic.
  4. Also, we would have to account for why the change suddenly happened, which was not predicted in our physical models either.

So not only would we be thrown into a non-industrial, non-electric, gas-and-steam era, we would also be set back about 250 years in physics.

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Why does the Earth get a pass when all other magnets stop working? The Earth is basically just a really big magnet. – fiend Jan 22 at 20:39
@fiend It would all depend on the narrative you want to tell. For instance, you could make a world where it's the rotation of the core that has more to do with the magnetic field than the properties of iron. That's why you would have to re-write science. As it stands, the question doesn't generate much in the way of story, because we'd all be dead in minutes if not immediately. Why would electromagnetism in general get a pass? – user151841 Jan 22 at 21:18
Actually, I'd say that electromagnetism (one of the universal forces) would disappear, which, unlike your imagination, may not affect our understanding of physics that badly. As it stands, relativity and quantum theory are compatible without electromagnetic force, or, in fact, with any of the forces we know. It turns out that the main subjects of physics that will be affected will be (obviously) fields that concern EM and string theory, according to my understanding. – Simple Art Jan 23 at 0:59

Yup, no electrical generation, solar radiation, ...long list. I'll add to it with induction. Inductors in electrical equipment are actually simple coils of wire, which can store electricity in the form of a magnetic field. If you remove the power the field collapses back in to the inductor; generating, or at least regenerating, an electromagnetic field.

My point is, that solar cells aren't going to help you. Most electronic products use some induction to clean up the power entering the unit, or to produce different voltages such as the flyback transformer in an old TV, the HT coil on your car, or the main component in your stungun/taser.

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From my understanding, I'd like to point at a few things. (bear with me)

If superstring theory is correct and all, magnetism could never stop existing. It's just how string theory says the universe should work.

But if we let magnetism stop, you might want to note that we have 4 forces in the universe:

1. Gravitational Force

2. Electromagnetic Force

3. Strong Force

4. Weak Force

You might not have heard of the last 2, so I will briefly explain.

Inside an atom, all of the protons are grouped at the center. Also, they have positive charges. Putting that in mind, electromagnetic forces should push them apart, like when you try to stick two magnets together from the positive side, they repel. But strong force counters this and holds the nucleus together (and is stronger).

Weak force is a weak atomic force that causes radiation. It is usually overpowered by other forces.

So when we remove electromagnetic forces (magnetic = electric), a few things should happen. First of all, electrons (-) and protons (+) should say hasta la viesta because + and - attract due to electromagnetic force. But now that's gone, so oh well.

You'd have some major radiation due to all of these electrons flying everywhere, which should kill you (that's somewhat what radiation is).

You'd have, I think, protons still sticking together and neutrons in there as well. The catch though is that they will be more dense with little to stop them from getting denser.

You might not even have neutrons at all: neutrons form from electrons and protons forced together, which has more mass and neutral charge. But what holds together neutrons? I think that'd be electromagnetism, which is gone.

However, neutrons may still exist due to gravitational pull inside of massively dense objects like neutron stars.

I do believe that at this point, if most of what I have said is true, then matter wouldn't exist with atoms. However, if matter does stay in some deranged way, then you might come to realization that it doesn't affect the main pillars of physics too badly. Relativity relies, indeed, on the speed of light, yes, but other than that, it should still work. Quantum Theory should also work, it would just affect some of our calculations and such. And chaos theory should still be itself, as chaos theory, and generally it should prove to work 'normally', whatever that's supposed to mean. If I'm wrong about this, do excuse my understanding because it is not extremely thorough.

Interestingly enough, I'd like to point out that light relies on electromagnetism to work the way it does and that without it, light may not even exist. In fact, electromagnetic radiation may not exist. Unless the universe comes up with a substitute, as I will discuss.

Without light, what do we have? "I think, therefore I am" -Descartes

Without light, you can't observe the universe in a fundamental way. Yes, we have the blind, but this is different. In a way, quantum theory's uncertainty principle relies on this idea of what we know and what we don't. Being unable to observe the universe in one of the main ways that life does, the uncertainty principle puts some majorly weird quantum mechanics into the world. For example, you might place a cup on a table, but without being able to observe the cup, it may be anywhere. (even off of the Earth or further) (Related to the problem of something going through two doors when you don't look)

But besides that, we have string theory. Essentially, the universe is an orchestra, with a set of notes to play. The universe may play any notes in any order to produce anything, but there is a limit. It only gets some notes to use. That is, it creates the 4 forces named at the beginning and only those forces. It creates matter as we know it, but it is limited to only certain elements, certain types of matter. The grand orchestra of the universe has its rules, according to string theory.

But when the universe decides to stop with electromagnetism, it means it full stop on certain notes, or chords, or whatever. This means the effect will be catastrophic. From what I understand, your end spells no beginning as far as new notes for the universe's orchestra.

What this means is that many of the universe's fundamental properties simply disappear altogether, related to electromagnetism in a direct way or not.

So the effect is a lot stranger than first appears.

As a side note, the 4 forces contain symmetry, something that would no longer exist without magnetism, which may have its own effects on the universe.

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neutrons form from electrons and protons forced together no. – JDługosz Jan 23 at 3:37
Generally we frown on rejecting the questioners premise but I see no reason not to point out the problems with their premise. As SimpleArt says, if magnets stop working, then something happened to electromagnetism to make it not work right. If that happens, really the effects would be the Universe, as we understand it, falling apart. – Jim2B Jan 23 at 4:07
@JDługosz Well, it's one way you can get neutrons. At least it's how neutron stars have neutrons. – Simple Art Jan 23 at 12:43
Neutrons are not p and e held together by electromagnetism. Neither the original p nor e still exists and the n is a new thing made up of different quarks. Under conditions (eg. A bound nucleus) where a neutron is more energetically favorable by at least twice the mass of an electron, it will be pulled from the vacuum, so there is no requirement to have electrons nearby to grab. – JDługosz Jan 23 at 13:27
Your point about stars: would gravity keep the electrons in the plasma with the protons or would they evaporate? Fusion using p-p chain reaction (used in for low-mass stars) would be easier without the repusive barrier. – JDługosz Jan 23 at 13:32

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