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What do north and south poles mean?

Every magnet has a north and a south pole. Here, we will try to explain the difference between North and South, as well as what these two poles signify in relation to magnets.

The north pole of a magnet is the pole that, as long as the magnet can rotate freely, points towards the planet's magnetic south pole (geographically north).

Similarly, the magnet’s south pole will always point towards the planet’s magnetic north pole (geographically south).

It's easiest to measure with a compass: the magnet attracts the needle towards the south if you point with the magnet’s north pole, while the south pole of the magnet will attract the compass needle towards the north.

The fact that opposite poles attract means that the world's northern pole is a magnetic south pole. The true polarity of a compass needle is accurate in the sense that the needle's north points towards the geographical north pole; but not 100%, as the geographical and magnetic poles are some distance from each other.

It’s logical that opposite poles attract

Fortunately, there's a logical explanation of how it works with north and south poles: When you hold your magnet with, for instance, the north pole upwards, and you bring the compass close to the other end of the magnet with the south pole, then the compass needle will point towards the pole the magnet also points to: namely north. Suddenly, the explanation becomes straightforward and more understandable because the magnets all want to align in the same direction according to their poles. Thus, a collection of magnets will have north facing south, allowing the magnets to point in their natural direction. Similarly, with repulsion: if you put two like poles against each other, one will turn away from its natural direction, creating repulsion between the magnets.

Here is our guide to finding magnetic poles if you need to differentiate the polarity of a magnet (i.e., which side of the magnet is north or south).

Finding magnetic pole with a compass

The easiest way to find magnetic poles is clearly with a compass. However, you should first know whether your magnet has axial or diametral magnetism (i.e., how the magnet is divided with magnetic polarity).

Most magnets are divided in the middle with the poles on the large surfaces - i.e., axial magnetism. But we will discuss both methods of measuring poles here.

How a compass shows you magnet poles: hold the magnet in your hand and turn one face towards the compass a few centimeters away. If the needle points firmly towards N, it shows you the magnet’s south pole; conversely, if the needle points towards S, the compass shows you the magnet’s north pole (refer to the section "It’s logical that opposite poles attract" above). If the needle is easily influenced, then the magnet likely has diametral magnetism, and you just turn the magnet a quarter turn (90 degrees).

Finding magnet pole without a compass

It's also possible to distinguish the poles from each other without a compass.

The water method - you will need:

- A magnet,

- A glass of water,

- A piece of styrofoam,

- Something to show direction, e.g., an app or a map, so you know which direction is north and which is south (could also be a compass, but then you wouldn’t need all the other things).

We assume axial magnetism here, as over 98% of our magnets have axial magnetism. To check a magnet with diametral magnetism, simply turn it 90 degrees according to the following instructions.

Place a glass of water large enough so the magnet can float around easily. If you have a disc magnet or block magnet, set the magnet on its edge on top of the styrofoam floating in the water (gently press the magnet into the styrofoam piece, so it's fixed. If you have a rod magnet, just lay it down across the styrofoam piece. The magnet will slowly turn towards the North and South. Use an app or a map to establish which direction is North. Once the magnet is still, you can confirm that the side of the magnet facing North is the magnet's south pole, and the side facing South is the magnet's north pole.

The string method - you will need:

- A magnet,

- A string,

- Possibly some glue or tape.

Again, we're assuming axial magnetism. If you have a magnet with diametral magnetism, simply turn it 90 degrees according to the instructions above.

Tie the string to the magnet - either with a loop around it or with tape or glue. Hang the string vertically from, for instance, a table or from the ceiling, without the magnet touching the floor, and let the magnet find its "rest."

Use an app or a map to determine which direction is North.

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Magnets are our everyday

We work with magnets every day, and through our FAQ, we strive to make magnetism more straightforward and less technical. So, we hope you've become a bit wiser about what North/South means on magnets. And if you need further explanation, we are more than happy to hear from you.

It's not just the aspect of poles that make magnets fascinating and unique. It's also amazing how much strength you can extract from a small disc magnet. Above, we've showcased a small selection of magnets with a factor of 10 in size difference - just look at the significant variance in strength, but also how much power can be extracted from our smallest magnets.

Magnets are impressive!