A levitating frog scooped an Ig Nobel award back in the year 2000 in celebration of a group of scientists, led by Dr Andre Geim, who harnessed diamagnetism to make the anuran (alongside a cricket and some plants) float in mid-air. Years later, Geim went on to win the Nobel prize for his work with graphene, but enough of that. Let’s talk about floating frogs.
Everything is at least a little bit magnetic. That’s an important concept to grasp before we move on, as it’s crucial in understanding how diamagnetism could lift a frog (and, theoretically, a human) off of the ground.
Metals like iron and cobalt tend to spring to mind when we think of magnetic objects – with good reason, as they exhibit strong magnetism. However, everything has a magnetic field. Some are just stronger than others.
As atoms and electrons zoom around each other, they create a field that (when placed in, say, one of the strongest electromagnets in the world) can repel against opposing forces. It’s a quantum mechanical effect known as diamagnetism that can occur with any object: living or inanimate, frog or cricket.
The levitating amphibian was so popular that it earned Geim and colleagues the Ig Nobel, drawing further attention to the experiment. Following this, they began receiving all sorts of requests – including, as they told NPR, the leader of a small religious group in England “who offered us a million pounds if we could levitate him in front of his congregation to improve his public relations.”
In case you’re worried about the floating frog and its fellow participants, you’ll be glad to know the experiment had no negative side effects on its living subjects. Outside of making celebrities out of amphibians, diamagnetic levitation has applications in industry and research, including the effects of zero gravity as floating living things here on Earth is cheaper than sending them out into space.
As for levitating a human, an insightful YouTube video from SciShow estimates that it is possible, but the space limitations (about the size of a bagel) mean most machines don’t have the room. Scientists are still working with the technology though, including improving our understanding of drugs by making cells levitate.