Magnetic Boy: Mystery or Simple Physics?

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A seven-year-old Serbian boy named Bogdan is making international news for an apparently paranormal (though not terribly useful) ability.

According to several sources including MSNBC and The Daily Mail, Bogdan is magnetic. Household objects such as spoons, knives, and forks cling to his skin with almost supernatural ease. The idea that a person could generate a strong magnetic field is bizarre, but what’s even stranger is that other things stick to him too, such as small plates, small flat glass objects, and even a remote control.

Bogdan is only the latest in a long line of people who have claimed this ability. Yet there is no evidence that Bogdan, or anyone else, is “magnetic.”

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The key to understanding this phenomenon lies not in magnetism nor in any sort of mystical ability but instead in the physics of friction. Skin is very elastic (that’s why they call it “plastic surgery”) and tends to conform to objects it comes in contact with. This is especially noticeable on hot days when bare skin attaches itself to leather or plastic seats. Skin can also be somewhat adhesive for the same reason.

It also has nothing to do with magnetism. Indeed, the fact that non-magnetic (non-ferrous) materials like plates stick to his skin is proof of that. What do metals, glass, and plastic have in common? All of them have very smooth surfaces.

So-called magnetic people have a few characteristics in common. First, they have very little hair on their bodies. Sometimes (as in the case of seven-year-old Bogdan) it’s because the person is an adolescent and has not reached puberty. Often the magnetic people are of Asian descent and thus not typically hirsute. This is important because any hair that comes between the skin and an object placed on the skin will reduce the friction.

Second, magnetic people seen in photographs and videos with objects on their body tend to lean back slightly, or stand more or less perpendicular to the ground. If there really was some sort of unknown or magnetic force holding the objects to the body, the person should be able to lean over. It’s also true that Bogdan is a bit chubby, and thus some of the weight of the spoons and other objects on his chest is actually resting on the upper part of his protruding stomach.

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If the reason the objects are sticking to the “magnetic” person is because of magnetism instead of simple skin friction, there’s no reason they should only stick to bare skin. Magnetic attraction works even through a thin piece of paper, and if the magnetism is as strong as is claimed, the magnetic people should be able to do their trick with a shirt on.

There’s no real secret or mystery to it: Anyone who’s seen a child with a spoon on his or her nose has seen it before. So are these people faking for attention, or do they really believe they have these powers? Most likely, they really believe they have special abilities. The only reason it seems unusual is that very few people spend their free time sticking spoons, knives, and small plates on their bare chests to see if they stick.

Furthermore, testing these supposedly magnetic folks is easy: Simply apply a light coat of oil to the skin and see how well things stick. With the natural adhesive properties of skin removed, the magnetism either works—or it doesn’t.

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