Levitation is for L’hovers

When you hear the word levitation, maybe you think of something like this:

I’m not saying that’s not real. (But it would not be inaccurate to say that it isn’t not unreal.)

Let’s leave magical powers out of this, though. I want to talk about the sort of levitation achieved by science.

Humans have found a handful of ways to force objects to defy gravity, and I’m going to tell you about one: magnetic levitation.

Ever heard of a maglev train? It uses electromagnets to run without touching the tracks, cutting down on friction (allowing for faster starts and stops) and wear-n-tear (theoretically making it less expensive to maintain). In order for this to work, the train has to hover at exactly the right distance from the track: 15 mm. That’s about the width of a woman’s thumb. The downside? No more nostalgic penny-smushing (possibly outweighed by the cool factor of a LEVITATING TRAIN).

Some maglevs actually use electrodynamic levitation, which involves superconducting electromagnets.


Whoops, sorry…looks like the Too Many Fancy Scientific Words (TMFSW) alarm just went off. Let’s break this down a bit.

What’s an electromagnet?

It’s a magnet that uses electricity to produce its magnetic field.

What is a superconducting electromagnet?

An uber-strong electromagnet produced by electric current from superconducting wire.

Superconducting wire?

Yeah. It just means the wire, when brought to extremely low temperatures, can carry a bunch more electrical current than regular wires. This allows it to create really strong magnetic fields.

Is everybody good? Can we turn the TMFSW alarm off now?


Excellent. Now, where was I?

Ah, yes. Some maglevs use superconducting magnets for levitation and propulsion. You know how when you put two magnets together at the wrong ends, they’ll push apart? A much stronger version of that force is what makes these maglevs hover and go. Here’s a basic view of how that works (remember, opposites attract, so North will push apart from North):

When you think about how heavy a train is, it makes sense that these magnets would have to be outrageously strong to levitate one. Thus, superconducting electromagnets instead of, say, Magna-Doodle dust.

Are you impressed yet?


Fine. Just watch this video. If you’re not in awe of levitation after that, we’ll see about resurrecting Kellar for one last show.

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39 thoughts on “Levitation is for L’hovers

  1. Nice post and a great topic to touch upon! Levitation is completely natural, i have seen a few saints in India levitate through their meditation.

  2. I studied this this when I did a policy internship and found it fascinating. Thank you for sharing and congrats on Freshly Pressed!

  3. Sciencelens says:

    Very cool post – yes, I’m impressed!
    And congrats on the FP.

  4. manfly says:

    Reblogged this on manflyblog and commented:
    ♥ Reblogged by manfly ♥ …  love peace & harmony to All

    beam me up.

  5. This is pretty neat! The university in my town has a “Saturday Morning Science” that I often take my 7-year-old to, it teaches cool stuff like this too! Thanks for sharing…

  6. I never knew that’s how those trains worked. Pretty awesome. But I have to ask, if you saw someone levitating, and magnets weren’t involved, what would you theorize is causing it without going into the realms of magic and psychic phenomena?

  7. bonsology says:

    wow that video is crazy!

  8. vanbraman says:

    I have ridden on the maglev train in Shanghai. A very smooth ride and also very fast. It is amazing that magnets can lift and propel so much weight.

  9. segmation says:

    I believe that David Blaine’s Levitation he called “Street Magic”. I don’t know if I believe that. How about you?

  10. This is like Marty’s levitating skateboard in Back to the Future. Always wanted one of those!

    • So true! I actually originally intended for this post to be about different kinds of levitation, and the hoverboard was going to get top billing. But maglev turned out to be interesting all by itself. Perhaps BTtF gadgets will get their own post one day…

  11. Great article! 🙂 Now when will I be able to buy one of those infamous hoverboards from “Back To The Future”? 🙂

  12. […] Levitation is for L’hovers. […]

  13. ray says:

    Reblogged this on geekery and commented:
    Short, simple and clear post on the basics of the awesome maglev (train) technology.

  14. Magnolia says:

    This is so cool! I was just watching a film today about quantum physics and one of the ideas it discussed was about how technically nothing really touches everything, that the friction of the electrons in-between make it so nothing ever touches..if I understood it right, not that this is the same, but all the same a different form of “levitation” I suppose. Great post, I learned something.

  15. GP says:

    Reblogged this on misentopop.

  16. Love the post! Such an interesting topic. Nice work getting onto FP!

  17. mirrormon says:

    Interesting!!… always great to find out about new things, this was def new to me … Good post!!

  18. Aja says:

    Pretty cool! Love it x

  19. I really love levitation photography…..so this was interesting! 🙂

  20. shonadaowna says:

    I’m all for a more floaty future.

  21. Michele LMS says:

    Fascinating! . . . Thank you for teaching me something new today!


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