The white plastic disk is much the same size and shape as a piece from an Othello board game, and is easily the most useless thing in there. Even as I type, I can see it out the corner of my eye, tucked between the stapler and the scissors, trying desperately not to be noticed. I’m not sure how the magnet-less fridge magnet ended up in my drawer. At some point, it presumably became detached from its magnetized base and tumbled from the fridge. It must have been quite a fall to take it around four corners and through a couple of doors into my desk.
I pick it up between my thumb and forefinger and examine it carefully. I’m not surprised it’s been hiding. There’s not much call for a fridge magnet that has to be superglued to a fridge. What on earth can be done with such a thing? Too small for a doorstop, too light for a paperweight and too simple for Fourier-transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer—the truth is, all that remains of the fridge magnet is a worthless, plasticky lump that’s not much good for anything.
I try not to think about my job.
No, I have to remain firm and focused. It may seem harsh, but given my extensive paperclip and rubber band collections—not to mention my fine selection of colored pencils—space in the drawer is tight, and so I simply cannot allow any freeloading. Every item in there has to contribute if it’s to justify its keep.
Still, it can’t have been easy for the poor thing: its entire purpose for existence ripped away from it like that. In the end, I decide the best I can do is try to use the magnet-less magnet as the inspiration for a short essay. If I succeed, the plastic disk will be able to hold its non-existent head up high and live among its fellow drawer-dwellers without shame. And if I fail? The wastebasket looks up evilly and grins.
Like many people, I found them fascinating as a child. I remember, for example, a lesson in elementary school in which the teacher pushed a bar magnet slowly toward little round magnets scattered here and there on a table top. Each of the round magnets in turn moved slowly backward at the bar magnet’s approach, something I found it highly amusing at the time. Looking back on it from this vantage point, I find it stirs uncomfortable memories of my university days and the success my geeky friends and I enjoyed as we attempted to meet women during student parties.
I suspect this image may surprise some people since the more natural association of magnets with romance is of opposites attracting. In fact, this also happened at the student parties—individuals being drawn irresistibly together from opposite ends of the room until with a final snap, they locked firmly at the mouth—it just didn’t happen to me.
So let’s jump again, this time to a happier memory from when I was about ten or twelve. I remember being in a variety store and passing a display of cheap compasses, really little more than toys. Having just enough money, I decided to buy one. As I looked carefully at the various needles and their orientations, I realized I had an excellent selection of norths to choose from and I wondered which to go for. I really had no idea. In the end, I shrugged my shoulders and selected the one pointing in the most interesting-looking direction. This was admittedly a slightly unexpected episode since compass needles are supposed to be permanent magnets, but I guess sometimes, permanence isn’t eternal.
Of course, some magnets are in a sense not actually magnets at all, but are instead temporary electromagnets created through the use of electric currents. This is the technology I get to see close up whenever I go through the metal detector in an airport. And then get to see close up again 3 seconds later. And then again. And again. My hand luggage gets off no more lightly, since it’s being blasted with X-rays at the same time. And even after all that, I am very often asked to open my suitcases for inspection when I arrive at my destination. Some readers may make the very reasonable suggestion that security staff might simply never before have seen someone passing through an airport with a bag on his head, but in fact, I generally remove my bag when I travel by airplane to ensure my appearance matches that shown in my passport photograph.
Despite these past run-ins with magnets, however, I find that on balance, I’m glad magnetism exists. After all, if the phenomenon in all its forms were to disappear tomorrow, we would immediately run into very great difficulties. First and most obviously, the notes on our refrigerators would fall instantly to the floor. A related issue, and one almost as catastrophic, is that refrigerator doors would no longer stay closed. They would therefore have to be tied shut with, say, a firehose or a bedsheet wound up to form a rope. The devastating problems this would cause when trying to get milk for our cornflakes in the morning are almost too terrifying to contemplate. As well as this catalog of horrific aftereffects, it may also be worth mentioning in passing that the entire universe would—according to the science website I checked two minutes ago—completely disintegrate. Needless to say, this would also be something of an inconvenience.
So despite the problems I have with it at airports, I think I may decide to keep magnetism after all. This bighearted decision on my part will not only allow the universe to continue existing, but also help organisms as diverse as sea turtles, pigeons and monarch butterflies avoid getting lost as they go about their lives. This is because these creatures—and many others—are thought to use our Earth’s magnetic field to help them find whatever destinations they seek.
The most interesting example of all is probably that of the European robin, a smaller and cuter fellow than its North American namesake. Research suggests this remarkable bird may literally be able to see magnetic fields as variations of shade superimposed on its normal view of the world. Even more remarkably, it seems the ability depends only on the bird’s right eye, which has to see sharp and well-defined images for this magnetic sense to work properly. The scientists know all this because special goggles were created to allow changes to be made in how clearly the birds could see out of each eye. “European robin goggle maker”—now there’s an occupation to put in your passport.
I can’t help feeling a little envious of the robin. Hoped for successes, dreamed of achievements—I have cherished destinations I’d like to navigate to in my life too. Sadly, I have little idea how to reach most of them. How much easier it would be to have the equivalent of arrows superimposed on my world to point me in the right direction. As a bonus, when it came to social interactions, perhaps fate could add helpful annotations.
- “Speak now.”
- “Smile here.”
- “Pause and look thoughtful.”
But navigation through life for we mere humans is a far less easy thing, for fate has decided not to provide us with any such helpful hints. Whether the choice before us is trifling or massively consequential, often there is nothing for it but to shrug our shoulders and choose whatever lies in the most interesting-looking direction.
© Bun Karyudo and the BunKaryudo Blog (2017)
(All Rights Reserved)