Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Dirt magnets

New on the market for people with more money than sense, we have: magnetized balls that you put in with your laundry to clean your clothes better.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons File:Bar magnet.jpg: Photo taken by Aney / derivative work: MikeRun, Bar magnet crop, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Called the "Life Miracle® Magnetic Laundry System," the idea is that putting magnets in your washing machine will somehow suck dirt particles off the clothes.  Or something like that.  It's hard to tell, frankly, because most of their sales pitch sounds like this:
The concept behind the Life Miracle Laundry System is that you can achieve similar results using a chemical-free, completely renewable magnetic basis, without using non-renewable petrochemicals.  Magnetic force is one of the most powerful forces on earth.  In fact, the earth itself is like a giant magnet with a north and south pole.  It is an amazing source of natural energy.  Even the weak magnets on your refrigerator defy the force of gravity without batteries or being plugged into any power source.  They will stay on your refrigerator, doing work and holding up papers for decades with no external power source.  Where does all this natural power come from?  From the environment around us.  It is completely renewable and totally free.  We are simply harnessing that amazing force and focusing it in your home washing machine to affect the water.
Okay, a few things right out of the starting gate.
  1. The magnetic force is not "one of the most powerful forces on Earth;" in fact, if you rank the four fundamental forces, it comes in at #3.  "Even overcoming gravity" isn't so surprising given that gravitation is by far the weakest of the four; electromagnetism is a factor of ten to the thirty-sixth power stronger than gravity.  For those of you not comfortable with scientific notation, electromagnetism is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times stronger than the gravitational force.  But it's still weaker than the other two fundamental forces.
  2. The magnets on your fridge do zero work.  "Work" is defined as the product of the force exerted and the distance traveled.  Since the magnets on your fridge aren't moving, they do zero work.
  3. I'm not even sure what you mean by calling magnetism "renewable."
  4. If the claim is correct, you'd think (since the Earth has such a "powerful magnetic field") our clothes would never get dirty in the first place. If dirt particles were pulled away from your clothes by magnets, seems like all you'd have to do is walk around and the dirt would fall off.  Or, in the case of really dirty clothes, it'd suffice to give yourself a good rubdown with a bar magnet.
  5. On the other hand, maybe since the Earth's magnetic field is what pulls dirt downward, this is why you find the majority of dirt on the ground.  I dunno.
Be that as it may, they have a great scientific explanation of how it works:
At an atomic level, everything is affected by magnetics. All you need to do it try is for yourself and see the results with your own eyes.
So there you have it.  Atomic forces you can see with the naked eye!

Later on, though, they throw in a few caveats.  In the FAQs, in fact, we're given an answer to the question of whether the magnet balls will actually get our clothes clean and bright:
That depends on your definition of “clean” and “bright”.  When comparing the usage of the Magnetic Laundry System with laundry detergent, you need to factor in a few things...  We define clean as chemical-free, non-harmful to the wearer and non-toxic to the environment, in addition to being optically acceptable.  But only you, the user and owner of the product can determine that.
So apparently whether the magnets work to make your clothes clean depends on what you mean by "work."

We also find out that the Magnetic Laundry System gives you best results when you also use detergent:
The Life Miracle Laundry System® is a laundry detergent alternative only.  Just like when using laundry detergent, separate products used for other functions must be used separately, like spot stain treatments, and whitening bleach products.  These are separate from the Laundry System just as they are separate from detergent... [and] nothing whitens like chlorine bleach, but there are few chemicals that are more toxic for the environment and health.  Bleach is very harsh and damaging to your clothes as well.  That said, if you don’t mind the tradeoffs, you can still use diluted bleach with Life Miracle Laundry System® if you choose.
Then we're told that the magnet balls also don't kill microorganisms, either:
Laundry detergent is not used to kill microorganisms, and neither is the Laundry System, but the cleaning process itself washes away most bacteria.  However, hot water will kill most microorganisms in the water, and a little bleach will do the same (although bleach works best at high temperatures).  An extremely effective natural alternative: Numerous studies show that a straight 5 percent solution of vinegar—such as you can buy in the supermarket—kills 99% of bacteria, 82% of mold, and 80% of germs (viruses).
So if you still have to use detergent, bleach, and hot water, what exactly is it that the magnet balls do, then?

Um... well... they're all-natural!  And non-toxic!  And don't pollute the environment!  And never need to be replaced!

What more can you ask for?

Until today, I didn't realize that the placebo effect applied to doing your laundry, but apparently it does.  Who knew?

So anyway.  Here again we have a good case for why we should put more emphasis on teaching science.  Anyone who has taken an introductory high-school-level physics course would be able to explain why the only way magnets would clean your clothes is if they were covered with iron filings.  For getting anything else washed clean -- especially anything oily -- you need a surfactant.

I.e., detergent or soap.

On the other hand, if they could develop magnets that attract dog hair, I'd be all for it.  As long as the magnets were "chemical-free," of course.  Can't have any chemicals around, you know.  Those things are dangerous.


The sad truth of our history is that science and scientific research has until very recently been considered the exclusive province of men.  The exclusion of women committed the double injury of preventing curious, talented, brilliant women from pursuing their deepest interests, and robbing society of half of the gains of knowledge we might otherwise have seen.

To be sure, a small number of women made it past the obstacles men set in their way, and braved the scorn generated by their infiltration into what was then a masculine world.  A rare few -- Marie Curie, Barbara McClintock, Mary Anning, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell come to mind -- actually succeeded so well that they became widely known even outside of their fields.  But hundreds of others remained in obscurity, or were so discouraged by the difficulties that they gave up entirely.

It's both heartening and profoundly infuriating to read about the women scientists who worked against the bigoted, white-male-only mentality; heartening because it's always cheering to see someone achieve well-deserved success, and infuriating because the reason their accomplishments stand out is because of impediments put in their way by pure chauvinistic bigotry.  So if you want to experience both of these, and read a story of a group of women who in the early twentieth century revolutionized the field of astronomy despite having to fight for every opportunity they got, read Dava Sobel's amazing book The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars.

In it, we get to know such brilliant scientists as Willamina Fleming -- a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid, but who after watching the male astronomers at work commented that she could do what they did better and faster, and so... she did.  Cecilia Payne, the first ever female professor of astronomy at Harvard University.  Annie Jump Cannon, who not only had her gender as an unfair obstacle to her dreams, but had to overcome the difficulties of being profoundly deaf.

Their success story is a tribute to their perseverance, brainpower, and -- most importantly -- their loving support of each other in fighting a monolithic male edifice that back then was even more firmly entrenched than it is now.  Their names should be more widely known, as should their stories.  In Sobel's able hands, their characters leap off the page -- and tell you a tale you'll never forget.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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