I came across an interesting bit of research into how monarch butterflies navigate via NYTimes.com today. In addition to being beautiful and excellent pollinators, monarchs are known for their lengthy north-south annual migration. Given that it takes multiple generations of monarchs just to make the trip even one way, scientists from different disciplines have long taken an interest in these tiny marvels.
We've understood for some time that monarch's use a combination of sun light and the earth's magnetic field to travel between their winter and summer homes. Since this ability is passed on from one generation to the next along the migration path, a genetic factor was pretty much a given, right?
And lo, not only have they identified the gene, but it appears humans are also predisposed to be influenced by magnetic forces around us.
Some how I find this possibility unsurprising.
Don't get me wrong. It is absolutely fascinating to me that we can look at our world the way we can, opening up the possibility of learning.
It's just that, well, when the collective WE learn X for the first time, it's not the same as creating the circumstances that led to X being there for us to learn. We've found another missing piece of the puzzle. When it is in place we say: oh, of course!
See, we live on a planet dominated by magnetic phenomena. How could anything, living or otherwise, not feel it's presence in some way?
Our earth today is a function of a molten core acting as a super magnet which ultimately influences weather, along with earth shifting stuff like volcanoes.
But more than that: earth's core has literally flipped itself around, along with our planet's poles, a number of times in earth's history, creating crazy weather unlike anything we've ever seen, along with increased geothermal activity (did you know every piece of pottery ever fired records the earth's magnetic field? Same, of course, goes for molten rock as it cools, hence a very good geologic record . . .)
And if it isn't our core, there is that fiery ball in the sky, which has it's own internal roiling to deal with. The occasional storm on our Sun far away wreaks havoc here on earth as the solar radiation slams into earth's magnetosphere (courtesy of our core), creating geomagnetic storms. Our reliance on satellite communications is at risk even from one of our sun's more normal storms. Fact is, our fate could be more like poor Venus, a planet thought to once have an atmosphere like earth's; that is, until the sun's increased radiation a few billion year's ago and literally blew Venus' atmosphere away.
Magnetism is a force we all understand, both as a metaphor and a real world information process. It can be made to push or pull, or both at the same time; and with remarkable outcomes, from the speakers at a rock concert to hanging artwork on the fridge.
At a more life size scale, every one of us generates an electromagnetic field: technology beware! We may not give magnetism much thought, but it clearly cannot be ignored.