Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 21: "Magnetism"
The Earth is a magnet. Core of iron and nickel. Poles north and south. Magnetic fields that loop out far beyond the atmosphere in a shape like elephant ears. For centuries, it’s how we’ve found our various ways home: our compass, this magnet, direction.
Spawning fish, migrating birds, and helicopter pilots all use it to find their way, the science guy says, reiterating the point you took from him and made your own. He’s coastal, shouting over the mechanical whine of a chopper. The waves here are small and come upon the shore rhythmically behind and around him. It’s a sunspotted day. The science guy wears a yellow windbreaker, open at the neck to let his bowtie breathe. You don’t know how he found his way here.
The Earth is a big magnet, he says, reiterating again, and its magnetic field is pretty handy.
The chopper swiftly changes direction, fwumps past him directly overhead as the science guy waves.
If you’re being completely honest, you are both afraid and impatient to find your way home. Young enough to do whatever, go wherever—old enough to feel silly doing it. Shouldn’t you be this by now? Shouldn’t you be here? And the smarter part of your brain kicks the synapses and hollers Shut up and simply be, and the lost part quiets for awhile. But it returns, persists, nags and nags and crows. It is not the biggest voice, but it speaks. Your home, for now, is where you tread, where you work, where you sleep. The word doesn’t feel quite right. Not yet.
There is a young girl out for a walk. Maybe nine years old, she says, Some animals, like dolphins, birds, and honeybees, use the Earth’s magnetic field to find their way home. She is walking along a trail at the edge of a park, not exactly wilderness, and pauses to look around. She looks concerned. No, she looks lost. There is an eight-way sign with destinations pointing in all directions: Moon, Mt. Rainier, Nye Labs, Library, etc. Finally, the girl asks for help not with a question but with an answer disguised as a fortune cookie. Humans might need a compass.
Her head falls as she picks a path, hopes for the best, and takes it. She can’t see the Home sign, or doesn’t, or simply chooses not to. You aren’t sure if there’s a difference.
When you left home, your home left. You’d never return to the same one. When you visited from college, then work, then more school, then more work that became simply life, it was to a different house. A non-home. Your home was the size of a home made for your family: eight people, eight bodies, eight personalities. Which is to say lots of room, lots of rooms, a wide backyard, long basement. You shared with your brother until sister-one left for school and you moved into her vacant space, next day. Spent years here in this, a smaller hovel crowding quickly with CDs and unread books, until sister-three said goodbye and you packed into hers instead. Larger this time, second floor, better light.
The pattern is clear: your home was never one of heavy sentiment. Your family was simply too large, made up of minds too committed to their own direct narratives—you foremost among them. So of course when you and your brother left and there were only three remaining to share its too-many rooms with too many corners too darkened, of course your home wasn’t meant to last. Within half a semester, the rest had moved, the new house smaller, smarter, newer, built for a new personal economy.
Of course it makes sense, of course it’s only logical. A home built with room for sentiment, a family thriving on nostalgia, that would be a different story someone else would tell. But you simply sometimes feel rootless. When you visit this house, no longer new, ten years they’ve lived there now, you sleep on the couch. You took the last of your garage boxes last year. There is nothing in this house that is yours. What makes a home a home? You would say it starts with possession, and you have none.
So you guide yourself instead with the rudder of your own life, making homes that don’t stay home for long. This boat only docks here before it's anchors up and away.
Magnetism is looping through our bodies our whole lives, the science guy says. In fact, it’s going through you right now.
Which is to say we are made of polar opposites. We contradict ourselves by possessing, being possessed by, our bodies. What are you if not a series of neverending loops you only trick yourself into believing you control. You are allowed to contain opposing multitudes. To be clearer, it cannot be avoided. You need this reminder daily, more frequently than that. We have conditioned ourselves to fit into boxes—it’s an old cliché but it still wallops—to see changes of the heart, even the ideas of changes, as weaknesses. How can you understand who you are that way?
Exactly. How can you? Who are you? The trick is only that there is no who, just as there is no home. There is you: a body in the universe fighting against a million different magnets. You: lost only if you’ve decided there is a feeling somewhere, somehow, not like lost. You: a mess of iron shavings that can never be tidied. An untethered weather balloon. An entire migration of birds.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.