There are some scientific subjects that attract recreational bedlamites like seagulls to a coastal landfill. My favorite of these is magnetoreception: the ability of an animal to perceive an ambient magnetic field. Lots of animals can do this—birds, insects, reptiles— and some of them use the earth’s weak magnetic asymmetry to achieve extraordinary feats of navigation. For example, scientific hero Ken Lohmann has shown that sea turtles navigate thousands of miles through the horrific salty ocean in order to meet their half-shelled-brethren at a specific location for an annual Bacchanalian picnic. Ken’s lab also found that if you move a spiny lobster 20 miles in any direction from its preferred hangout spot, it immediately returns directly to its headquarters using cues from the earth’s magnetic field. These and bajillions of other examples demonstrate that many of the earth’s macro-biotic inhabitants can use a magnetic sense to cruise around in magnificent style, which, in my humble opinion, is absolutely fucking fantastic.
Returning to the bedlamites. There are two dudes in particular that illustrate the fact that magnets exert a certain ineffable force upon the zanier castes of our super-organismic civilization. The first of these is shown in the video above: Mr. Harry Magnet, whose extensive pape on personal perception of magnetic fields cannot be deemed sick or otherwise, because it has not undergone rigorous peer review (but we welcome submissions).
The second example comes from Alane Jackson, the purveyor of a theory called magnetrition, which was first explained to me by a youth soccer referee who lived in a wigwam on an magnetically neutral island in the middle of an Alaskan lake. Basically, Alane’s idea is that mitochondria are magnetically charged, and that jostling our cells around causes cytoplasmic stirring, thereby promoting health. I also recommend another section of Alane’s website, titled Smoking is good.
Buried beneath all of this absolutely essential HTML is an equally intense scientific debate about the mechanisms by which real animals measure magnetic fields. So far, two basic mechanisms have been proposed:
(1) MAGNETITE. The magnetite hypothesis was inspired by the observation that some magnet-loving bacteria produce magnetite (Fe3O4) crystals that cause them to align with and cruise along the local magnetic vibe. Because magnetite has also been found in the snouts/beaks of fish and birds, it was suggested that the rotation of these crystals could be detected by mechanosensory neurons in the brain. Smaller, “superparamagnetic crystals” have also been found in bird beaks. These crystals do not have a permanent magnetic moment, and therefore do not individually rotate to align with the earth’s magnetic field. However, large arrays of these superparamagnetic crystals would attract and repulse each other under different magnetic field conditions, generating forces that could, in principle, be sensed by neurons.
(2) CRYPTOCHROME. This second mechanism is even bonkers-er. Some radical-pair chemical reactions can be influenced by magnetic forces—one example is the absorption of light by retinal photopigments called cryptochromes. The idea is that the ambient magnetic field would alter the rate of cryptochrome photo-isomerization, so that if a bird were gazing upward at a clear blue sky, it could actually “see” a hazy magnetic field image layered on top of the normal visual scene.
The argument surrounding these two mechanisms is best exemplified in the bird magnetoreception literature, which has been enriched in recent years by a flurry of combative pape-slinging. In one camp, (1) the Wiltschkos and their pals claim that birds use little magnetite particles in their beaks to detect magnetic fields, while in another camp (2) Henrik Mouritsen and his pals claim that magnetoreception arises in the retina, mostly likely through cyptochrome. (3) David Anthony Keays and his buds weighed in on side 2 of the fracas last year, when they suggested that those magnetite particles in the beak are located inside little pieces of biological irrelevance called macrophages.
Although the field of magnetoreception is confusing and controversial, one cannot help but delight in the titillation-level of the questions and the unfettered academic shit-hurling. Magnetoreception is clearly the modern El Dorado, attracting both well-funded academics and itinerant kooks. There is the important possibility that everybody is right— that birds have two independent magnetic senses and so do people, and the booty will be split evenly amongst the Professors and the online gurus. It seems much more likely to me, however, that this entire field is booby-trapped, and that all the magnet-lovers will end up stalking monkeys on a raft as the river below their feet slowly transforms into a cauldron of boiling soup.