To brainstorm ideas for a magnet exploration I turned to one of the Exploratorium’s secret little archives of activity ideas, Paul Doherty’s personal website. He has a whole giant section on magnets with tons of interesting demos and experiments. Click Here to take a look at it.
I have been wanting to play around with one of these activities The Garden Of Magnets, for a long time now, because I love thinking about the way that simple systems can create complex patterns and interactions and this seemed like a perfect example. To make a floating magnet garden all you do is make a set of foam circles and attach a magnet to each one so that they all have the same orientation (I put staples in the foam and stuck each magnet to the staples so it would stay on the raft).
When I floated all my magnets in the water I was fascinated by the way they interacted with each other. Their behavior seemed to me to have a lot of personality, so at one point I added eyes to rafts and watched as they all moved over to give each other space, just like people do! Then I discovered that if I put one magnet in with the opposite orientation from all the others I got very different results. Eventually the rebel magnet would cause the entire system to collapse on itself, with all the magnets flipping over and grabbing onto each other until they were just one big pile and half the water had splashed onto the table!
Another interesting thing I noticed about this experiment is that the tone of this video became very important to me. I really wanted it to feel strange, and I wanted the little magnet rafts to come across as animate. I started this activity because I was interested in what it might show me about magnetic fields and how they interact, but in the end the narrative was what kept me playing with them for so long. A big part of taking time to try new experiences as a learner is to retain your ability to empathize with your visitors and students, and at the moment I’m finding it really easy to understand why narrative making opportunities get emphasized so much when we talk about exhibit and activity design.