In late 2014, reports out of Russia told of a boy who became “magnetic” after receiving an electrical shock. It once again highlighted one of the longest-running hoaxes in history: human magnetism.
Let’s first take a look at the November 2014 report, along with other reports of human magnetism and results of simple tests used to prove or disprove the claims.
2014 Russian Boy
In a November 20, 2014 UPI story entitled, “Boy says electric shock turned him into magnet,” we read of Nikolai Kryaglyachenko, who claims to have leaned against a lamppost with faulty wiring, which resulted in an electrical shock. After this occurred, the boy says he gained the ability to attract metal objects like a magnet. He alleges that the day after his shock, he woke up to find metal objects stuck to his chest. A video of the boy was released to demonstrate the boy’s new-found magnetism:
In 2011, a similar story emerged about a 7 year old Serbian boy who claimed to attract metallic objects, and was shown with assorted kitchen utensils adhering to his chest. LiveScience dissected that story, and many of their conclusions can be applied to the story of the 2014 Russian boy.
Discovery also debunked human magnetism claimed in this story, noting that most people who claim to be magnetic have little hair on their bodies, and often can be seen leaning back slightly. In the case of overweight people, Discovery notes that “some of the weight of the spoons and other objects on his chest is actually resting on the upper part of his protruding stomach.”
Claims of human magnetism dates back centuries, and have never been proven to the satisfaction of skeptics or scientists. Consider the following:
The Russian boy claims to be able to pass his magnetism onto his friends. This is “proven” by placing a spoon on the noses of his classmates. A spoon on the nose, of course, is a classic parlor trick which can be performed by anyone, and in no way demonstrates human magnetism.
Further, skeptics have pointed out that “magnetic” people often lean back in order to increase their ability to retain the objects against the skin. The boy’s torso and hands can be seen providing an inclined surface for the attached objects.
Many of these so-called human magnets can also be seen placing non-metallic objects (such as glass, plastic, brick, or wood) to themselves, which would indicate that something other than magnetism is holding the objects in place – which in this case is sticky skin.
Sadie Crabtree of the James Randi Education Foundation pointed out in the 2011 story that some people have stickier skin than others, and smooth surfaces of the utensils used will stick to some people more than others, depending on their skin type. LiveScience also cited a chemistry professor who pointed out that the grease on the skin has a low surface energy, in contrast to the high surface energy of metal. For this reason, metals may stick to skin easily, especially if the skin is particularly smooth and greasy.
Science Based Life has a well-presented post on the topic of magnetic people, and uses the excellent example of sweaty skin which sticks to a leather seat. It is the same principle in which metallic objects can be attached to particularly smooth, oily skin.
So-called “magnetic people” always perform their demonstrations shirtless, because the trick will not work without the oils of the skin against the smooth metal object. While one may argue that a person’s magnetism might be too weak to perform such a demonstration through clothing, it should be noted that other “human magnets” have used large objects such as irons as “proof.” Magnetism strong enough to hold an iron would certainly be strong enough to hold through a thin shirt.
LiveScience reported that past claims of human magnetism were easily debunked by simply placing a compass near the individual in question. In those cases, a truly magnetic person would affect the compass, but it never happened. All compasses used to test purported magnetic people continued to point to the earth’s magnetic North.
In a live television show, skeptic James Randi appeared alongside so-called “magnetic” people. After a demonstration of their magnetic abilities, Randi proposed a test.
“I’m going to ask the challengers to put the powder on their hands and on their chests, and then make the objects stay there,” Randi suggested.
After applying the powder, the alleged magnetism could no longer be demonstrated.
Claims of human magnetism date back centuries, but have never been proven. The boy in Russia likely has a combination of smooth and sticky skin, along with a rounded torso, which allows smooth metallic objects to adhere easily and give the appearance of magnetism.
These objects – metallic or otherwise – adhere to people with sticky skin who lean back, much in the way that leather car seats stick to bare skin.
When tested against a compass or with talcum powder applied to the skin, “human magnets” have all failed.
Updated May 17, 2016
Originally published November 2014