Q:

Why does a compass point north?

A:

Quick Answer

A compass has a small magnet balanced on its needle. The Earth has two magnetic poles, and the magnet is attracted to its polar opposite at the North Pole.

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Full Answer

The Earth's magnetic fields make compass operation possible, but it is not truly known why these fields exist. The Earth's core consists of super-pressurized molten iron that has been forced into a solid by intense heat and pressure. Convection from the Earth's core, along with the planet's rotation, causes the mantle to move in a rotational pattern, creating a magnetic field around the planet. However, the field is very weak, so compass needles, for example, must be installed on frictionless pivots, since the attraction is not strong enough to overcome much friction.

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Related Questions

  • Q:

    How is a compass used?

    A:

    Store-bought compasses have a lightweight and magnetized pointer fixed on a low-friction pivot; a small plastic cylinder filled with liquid seals the pointer. Settle the needle and rotate the compass card (the layer of plastic encasing the cylinder) until the needle lines up with the north/south axis label.

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  • Q:

    How do I describe how a compass needle aligns itself?

    A:

    A compass needle is made of magnetized material and points toward Earth's north magnetic pole no matter which direction the compass faces. Therefore, it is an excellent low-tech tool with which to find direction. Earth has a powerful magnetic field that emanates from the axis of rotation. Magnets are created from materials whose electrons all point the same direction and are attracted to an opposite charge.

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  • Q:

    Who invented the magnetic compass?

    A:

    The magnetic compass was invented by the Chinese around the 4th century B.C., and was originally used as a figurative aid to help manage their daily lives. It was introduced to Europe in the 14th century, where it was improved upon and used as a navigational aid.

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  • Q:

    How does a magnetic compass work?

    A:

    A compass works by utilizing the Earth's magnetism in order to find directions. Its invention enabled people to perform navigation over long distances, opening up the sea for exploration. The earliest compasses have been traced to the Chinese Song dynasty in the form of magnetized metal pieces floating in bowls of water.

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