Ordinary Stardust

We're all unique, individual parts of a greater universe, and big, red U-shaped magnets from my childhood helped me realize this.

BY: Ptolemy Tompkins

Back in the early seventies when I was in grade school, there was a period when the must-have toy wasn’t a car (like the Hot Wheels models that enjoyed top popularity for a long period), a top (like the now-defunct but for much of my youth extremely popular Whizzer), or any other such relatively fancy item. It was a magnet.

Purchased – as I recall – not at toy stores but at hobby and craft stores, these magnets were U-shaped, red, heavy in the hand like giant lead fish sinkers, and extremely powerful. In my third grade class, all the boys had to have one.

Once possessed, however, these magnets proved slightly frustrating. Yes, they were cool looking, and yes, it was impressive just how hard they held when clamped onto a school locker or the front of one’s refrigerator at home. But beyond that, there wasn’t a whole lot you could do with them.

One day during recess, a couple of friends and I were clamping and re-clamping our magnets to the metal of the jungle gym when one of us dropped his into the dirt. Picking it up, he noticed something strange. The loose dirt – or at least a few flecks of it – clung hard to the red magnet’s dull-gray tip.

One of us ran inside, procured a Dixie cup from next to the water dispenser, came back out, and scooped some dirt into the cup. We all watched as he placed the magnet at the bottom of the cup, and were startled to see certain grains of dirt leap to attention. While the other dirt grains lay there lifeless, these strangely energized grains slid back and forth across the bottom of the cup in response to my friend’s movement of the magnate below.

The explanation for this strangely miraculous behavior was given to us later that day by Mr. Monroe, the lower school science teacher. Dirt – especially the dry, sandy dirt typically found on the edges of playgrounds – is mostly made up of finely ground up rocks, and some rocks contain metallic ore.

Continued on page 2: There is really nothing ordinary about the world at all... »

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