Magnetic Tightrope

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How multiple magnets affects another magnet

Magnets: Demonstrating the attraction and repulsion of magnets produces entrancing, unpredictable motion

Sunshine State Standards: SC.B.1.2 SC.B.2.2

*Magnet on a stand

  • Button Magnets

To Know:
Patterns of order can be found in disordered systems. The pendulum – a magnet swinging over a small number of fixed magnets – is a very simple system that shows chaotic motion for some starting positions of the pendulum. The search for order in the chaos can be very engrossing.


  • First put all the magnets together in a stack so that they stick together magnetically. By doing this, you are orienting the magnets so that all of the north poles point in one direction and all of the south poles point in the other direction.
  • One magnet is glued to the swinging rod so it will be attracted or repelled by one end or the other of the loose magnets.
  • Arrange the magnets on the base in an equilateral triangle or a rectangle measuring a couple of inches on a side. Position the magnets so that they all have the same pole up.

To Do and Notice:

  • Give the pendulum magnet a push, and watch what happens.
  • Vary the location and poles of the magnets to develop other patterns.
  • Try arranging the magnets with all of the same pole facing up
  • Then try mixing the magnets up.
  • Notice that a tiny change in the location of one of the fixed magnets or in the starting position of the pendulum magnet may cause the pendulum to develop a whole new pattern of swinging.

What’s Happening?

  • The force of gravity and the simple pushes and pulls of the magnets act together to influence the swinging pendulum in very complex ways.
  • It can be very difficult to predict where the pendulum is going to go next, even though you know which magnets are attracting it and which are repelling it.
  • This sort of unpredictable motion is often called chaotic motion. Strangely enough, there can be a subtle and complex kind of order to chaos. Scientist try to describe this order with models called strange attractors.

Something to Think About:

  • Scientist who study chaos and turbulence are unveiling hidden relationships in nature. Diverse phenomena, such as the patterns of Saturn’s rings, measles outbreaks, and the onset of heart attacks all follow chaotic patterns.
  • A system that is predictable in the long run often will show chaotic variations in the short run.

Developed by the GE Volunteers in partnership with the Museum of Arts and Sciences (MOAS) – Daytona Beach, FL