Why Your Vaccinated Arm Isn’t Magnetic, You Big Silly Goose

People are claiming their COVID-19 vaccines are making them magnetic, and they’re out there in the digital world sticking stuff to themselves to prove it.

So, let’s think that through, It’ll be a laugh.

GETTING PAID REAL MONEY TO BREAK SHIT

Circus strongmen do a wide variety of tricks — hand balancing and acrobatics (rubbish at it), lifting feats (picking up heavy stuff), breaking feats (my favourite was baseball bats), bending feats (usually something made of steel), levering feats (my favourite was lowering sledgehammers or axes over my face from arm’s length),

and the all-time classic, driving nails through boards bare-handed (easily my favourite, especially when the boards were on fire).

Best job I ever had.

Now, these tricks require you to be strong, and they require a LOT of practice. Make no mistake — they are ‘real’. But they’re also still tricks. Professional wrestling is the same — it’s ‘fake’, but a 300lb man is very really flying 20 feet off the top rope, and crashing through the announcer’s table.

It’s fake-real. Real-fake.

The crux between real and fake is simple: there’s always something you don’t understand about the physics involved. It’s almost impossible to tear a phonebook in half, if you tear it up like it’s your junk mail. But with the correct hand position, you can create a line of force through the face of the pages, and once the tear starts just a millimeter or two, the entire book suddenly bursts open straight up the middle.

(It became harder and harder to do once phonebooks started getting phased out. I used to go to big apartment blocks back when the Australian Yellow Pages was delivered to them 40 at a time, and pinch the lot in a pair of duffel bags. When the phonebooks started getting smaller, I used to stack two.)

God, what a marvelous trick. I performed it for Ginger Spice once. She said I was obnoxious. She was right, of course.

Now, the fun part: some tricks are all hidden physics, and no strength or skill. The easiest relevant trick here might alarm you: eating glass.

This is not something I recommend, but I assure you that, done correctly, breaking a lightbulb and eating it is SAFER than anything I ever did on stage for money.

Why? Because it’s silicon. Chewed up sufficiently, it’s no more threat than getting a mouthful of sand at the beach. You just need to chew it sufficiently that it won’t lacerate your GI tract. I never did it on stage, it takes too long to do all the chewing required. It messed with the rhythm.

Feats like this are often called sideshow tricks.

And sticking a magnet to your COVID vaccine site and watching it clamp onto your arm is a reproduction of a very old sideshow trick.

There are ‘magnetic men’ from all over the world. The guy who was in my Big Book of Astonishing People as a kid was Nikolai Surov.

The hidden physics are probably obvious — start with a slightly damp person or a slightly damp object, make sure your object has a particularly flat / glassy surface if possible, lean your ‘magnetic’ surface back slightly, and attach your object smoothly.

(And some people are just sticky. It probably works better on a hot day.)

That’s all — you’re golden. That’s why it works with the surface of an iron, or a steel pan — nice flat surface, good surface area, good friction. You can use smaller objects (nails, spoons, keys, etc.) but it’s all the same dodge.

Try it with your phone right now! Close all your apps, turn it off, breathe on the glass face of it, then attach it to your upper arm. For fun, pick the arm without microchips.

So far so simple. A good trick for impressing kids.

NOW.

When the internet comes to you, saying ‘hey, I’m magnetic’, I think it’s deeply unsatisfying to do the following things:

  • Say ‘you’re a stupid asshat, don’t think that’
  • Explain the principles of electromagnetism
  • Interview a physicist, who will repeat both of the above

Etc. etc. It’s emotionally unsatisfying and deeply naïve. It’s so much more fun to sift through the wreckage. And what’s the trope that the conspiracy-minded always use? Do your own research.

SO LET’S DO THAT!

FIVE TESTS TO SEE IF YOU’RE IRON MAN

Let’s assume everyone has a chip in their arm, and think through how to investigate that. Here are five better tests than the ones you’ve seen so far.

1. TEST A NON FERROUS METAL

Magnetism is confusing and annoying, a very deep phenomenon. However, *under regular household conditions*, a sheet of copper or aluminium is ‘not magnetic’. See if any of the following stick to your arm anyway:

  • A copper scouring pad (I have one in my kitchen)
  • An aluminium fry pan
  • Aluminium foil
  • A mess of copper wire (strip it first, let’s make this an honest test)

What works? What would you think if non-magnetic objects with flat surfaces stick to your just as well as ferrous or magnetic objects?

2. A PROPER NO-SHIT MAGNET

Someone out there must have a neodymium magnet that’s cubic or fat disc shaped. These magnets are STRONG. The ones we have at work shatter into a thousand pieces just from the force of pulling themselves together!

So, let’s take our magnet with a low surface area to volume ratio and try to stick that on. It will be pretty obvious how powerful the magnets are from the first time you handle them. What would the reason be if they didn’t stick?

3. THE RANDI SPECIAL

Unknown to almost everyone except old weirdos like me, the great debunker James Randi actually dealt with this magnet business 30 years ago — he did a demonstration where he put talcum powder on the arm of a magnetic man, and then the magnetism was mysteriously lost.

The lad’s face when the iron starts falling off kills me.

You don’t have to have a box of talc handy, just use a piece of office paper. Magnetism will be unaffected by a piece of paper, as it’s awfully thin and it has no shielding properties. Stick that piece of paper between your metal/magnet and your arm. What happens?

4. TRY IT LYING DOWN

Tie a piece of string to your ferrous object, lie on the ground with your ‘magnetic’ arm facing upwards, and get a friend to pull your chosen ferrous object off you with the string. Is there any resistance? If you get your friend to ‘pendulum’ the object gently past your magnetic site, does it change the path at all?

Alternatively, lie with your magnetic side down, off the side of your bed. Get them to stick your object of choice to your shoulder, which is now pointing toward the floor. Does it stay?

5. COMPARE YOUR ARMS

If you’re like me, you had both shots in the same shoulder. So, that means the other one should behave completely differently in the presence of a magnet or a ferrous metal if this is a localised phenomenon. Give it a try.

Conclusion

Start with what you think might be true, then try to figure out another demonstration this would imply.

If I’m magnetic, then what else would stick to me? What else wouldn’t stick to me? How big does this object have to be? How small?

If that, then what?

Work your way through an idea like it was a dark room — feel out for the solid objects, construct a mental map of the objects so you don’t walk into them, navigate to the light switch.

Even for a silly idea drawn from the perforated colon of the internet, it’s fun. I have stuck the following things to myself over a period of ten minutes:

  • My phone
  • A plate
  • A teaspoon
  • A sheet of aluminium foil
  • The cat (he fell off; the irony is, he is microchipped!)

I wonder if we all accept the mental model of adulthood too early, and internalise the idea that we need to know things rather than find things out.

While we’re here: you know who’s good at this process? Engineers. They often encounter a function or an analysis method they don’t understand, but something they can tell a computer to execute.

A Hilbert Transform? What the hell is a Hilbert Transform?

So, often the first thing they do is: mess with it. They guess an input that makes the function produce an output. Does it run? No. Change it again. Does it run? No.

So, they change the type of the input, use a different type of data for the input. Does it run? Ooh, yes it does.

Then they look at the output. Perhaps it’s unfamiliar. OK, change the input again. Oh, the answer looks familiar now. Then they look up the theory. Theory implies X. Oh, so the output should do Y. But it doesn’t. Change the input. OHHHHH, now the output makes sense.

Then they open the function, and walk through the steps, or they look it up. Engineers look a lot of things up, that’s why Stack Overflow memes are a genre.

Watching an engineer solve an unfamiliar problem for the first time is a seamless display of dead reckoning, reasoning from first principles, and typing “why does X do Y” into Google.

There is a whole entire literature of educational theory about this process. There are theories, there are studies. But it often amounts to: try stuff and formalise it.

Now, go boldly forth, and stick things to your arm. If anyone asks any impertinent questions, I thoroughly recommend the response “Quiet, mortal. I am doing science.”

I write about science. We can probably be friends.