S02E23: The Monopolar Expedition

In this epsiode, the season-two finale, Sheldon wins a National Science Foundation grant to go to the Arctic and look for a magnetic monopole.   He’s excited because if he finds them, he would finally win his Nobel Prize.

What is a magnetic monopole?  “Mono” is Greek for “alone”, but every magnet ever made or found always has at least two poles, called North and South.   As a child I would play with magnets that had two poles and looked like this:


The North pole of a magnet is always attracted to another’s South Pole and like poles (North-North and South-South) always repel.

If anyone ever discovers a magnetic monopole, a Nobel prize is assured.  So it’s worth a try.  What if you tried to be clever and make a monopole by cutting the magnet above in half?  You can try this at home with a hacksaw and a friend’s magnet:


Too bad. You’ve just made two smaller magnets each with their own North and South poles.   Try again. The same thing keeps happening:


Ad infinitem (or more precisely, whatever Latin is for “to the smallest”).   At some point you will cut the magnet so small that you will have cut down to the size of a single  atom.  (Atom being Greek for “do not cut”.)   Even then, a single atom often behaves as a magnet, but always with both a North and South pole, and you can’t cut it any finer.  Well, with a lot of money, you can cut even the atom into to subatomic particles:  protons, neutrons and electrons, but even these little magnets still always have one  North and South magnetic pole.   With a pile more money, you can cut the proton and neutrons into their smallest parts, quarks, you will still have magnets with North and South poles.  Nobody knows if it is possible to cut an electron or quark but particle physicists keep trying.

Magnetic monopoles have been tantalizing physicists for over a century.  In the late 19th century, the Scottish theorist James Clerk Maxwell summarized everything that was known about electricity and magnetism with just four simple equations.  (They weren’t so simple the way he wrote them, but we’ve cleaned them up since then.)   These equations displayed a beautiful symmetry of form between electricity and magnetism.    In fact one point where they lacked symmetry between electricity and magnetism  led Maxwell to add a term and as a result he (correctly) predicted how light is comprised of just oscillating electric and magnetic fields.  This was one of the most amazing moments in all of physics.

But there is one glaring obvious lack of symmetry remaining in Maxwell’s equations.  Electric monopoles are everywhere you look: Electrons are a monopole of one charge and protons are a monopole with the other charge.    Yet not a single magnetic monopole is ever found.  We are forced to put a zero in Maxwell’s equations that breaks their otherwise  symmetrical treatment of electricity and magnetism.  Now, over one hundred years later, modern theories such as string theory predict the existence of magnetic monopoles.  However, since there is little that string theory does not predict, the question remains to be proven by experiment, perhaps Sheldon’s experiment….

Scientists have looked for magnetic monopoles, in particular in the 1980’s when they were predicted by a Grand Unified Theory which was beautiful, theoretically compelling, and wrong.  Sheldon’s idea was to take his motivations from string theory and improve on the old experimental technique by using the Earth’s magnetic field to increase his chances.   Much like you can collect more rain and more accurately measure the rainfall by putting a funnel over a cylinder,  Sheldon’s idea was to use the Earth’s magnetic field as a funnel for magnetic monopoles.  Oddly enough, the Earth’s  “North” magnetic pole is the “South” pole of the Earth’s magnet, and vice-versa.  That means “North” magnetic poles would be directed to the Arctic, and South magnetic poles would be directed to the Antarctic.    (There is a loophole that the monopoles can’t be moving to fast.  Listen carefully to the dialogue and you’ll hear Sheldon say “slow-moving magnetic monopoles”.)  The show’s writers knew that the Antarctic is inaccessible in May (the time the season finale aired) so sent Sheldon and his friends to the Arctic.

The National Science Foundation’s polar programs helps scientists, including me, move themselves and their gear into the polar regions to conduct their science.  They give us the gear, training, and support so we don’t kill ourselves out in the field.  For this episode, the NSF gave the show their official logo to use, which you can see on all the boys’ shipping crates.  The boys’  clothing are exactly the same ones that are issued to the scientists in the real polar program:  Their red parkas are extremely warm and nick-named “Big Red” by polar scientists.  Even their big white (sometimes blue)  insulated boots, which scientists call “bunny boots” are issued to real scientists by the NSF.  Here’s a picture of our science team wearing the gear on the ice:


Physicists on ice.

A fun fact to impress your friends when watching this episode in re-runs:  The diagrams on the whiteboard in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment show classic equations and diagrams describing magnetic monopoles.


13 Responses to “S02E23: The Monopolar Expedition”

  1. Traducción: “S02E23: The Monopolar Expedition” « The Big Blog Theory en Español Says:

    […] Artículo original por David Saltzberg […]

    • David Saltzberg Says:

      Fantástico….No tengo palabras!!!!

      • Clex Sipsoxard Says:

        Okay, thanks. That was fast, by the way.

        This entry took me about one and a half hours. I want to be sure what I’m writing about. But don’t worry, I’m a physics-lover, so I have a general idea.

        (I am from Argentina)


  2. natsufan Says:

    Just a question… What’s that “Faulken hearing” of Sheldon that the guys mention twice in this chapter. I’ve tried to look it up as Faulken or Falken hearing, but haven’t found it.

    • David Saltzberg Says:

      “Vulcan Hearing”

      • natsufan Says:

        Oooopsie! Or course, now I see!😀
        What a failure! In Spanish, the “v” is pronounced exactly like the “b”, so when I heard the English pronunciation of “v”(which sounds pretty similar to an “f” but vibrating your vocal chords like in a “b”) in “Vulcan”, I processed the sound “f” (my fault). Thus, I understood “Falken” or “Faulken”. I considered having all the vowels wrong, but I wouldn’t have imagined I had gotten the “f” wrong. No wonder I couldn’t find it at wikipedia😄

        Thank you very much for your answer! I wouldn’t have guessed that one by myself in a hundred years🙂

  3. Tradução: “S02E23: The Monopolar Expedition (A Expedição Monopolar)” « The Big Blog Theory (em Português!) Says:

    […] clássicos que descrevem monopolos magnéticos. Tradução feita a partir de texto extraído de The Big Blog Theory, de autoria de David Saltzberg, originalmente publicado em 19 de Setembro de […]

  4. S02E23: The Monopolar Expedition Says:

    […] The Big Blog Theory » 2009 » September[/translate]Liens […]

  5. Glenda Says:

    One question about this episode which you don’t seem to mention – why do the boys need those giant parkas when they’re going in the Summer? Surely its not _that_ cold in the arctic in July (relatively speaking)?

    • David Saltzberg Says:

      The magnetic north pole is near Ellesmere Island in the arctic. Its latitude is around 82 degrees north. The average temperature in the summer is around 0 to 5 degrees Celcius. That is similar to what I experienced in Antarctica. It is cold enough to need parkas when you are outside working for many hours, especially when it is windy or on the cold side, and whebn you are used to California weather.

  6. Mangrum Dustin Says:

    Mission Immpossible; I say not. It is possible to create magents with one pole. I have done it my-self, I currently have a magent that is polarized North only right now. Going on 4 weeks with no lose in charge, and my method can be reproduced.

    • Anonymous Says:

      wow, when and where will you be getting your work published? Let me be the first to congratulate you on your Nobel Prize!


  7. Episode 1: The Elements of Good Science | The Wonder of Reality Says:

    […] Discovery News has a piece on magnetic monopoles and a bit of their history. A lot of the article covers the season 2 finale of The Big Bang Theory which deals with magnetic monopoles; you can read more on the science behind the episode here […]

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