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76 July 2011 Physics Today www.physicstoday.

org
Earths core (1:10
6
scale)
This unusual device is a laboratory
model of Earths core. The experiment
aims to study the self-generation of
magnetic fields as occurs in the geo -
dynamo. The temperature of Earths iron
core precludes ferromagnetism; our plane-
tary field instead comes from induction,
analogous to processes converting mechani-
cal motions to electric currents in an electric
generator. Yet deep mysteries remain about the
structure and dynamics of Earths magnetic field.
The need to understand it is driving experimental
efforts worldwide (see the article on page 40), including
this 3-meter-diameter model dynamo at the University of
Maryland.
Shown here is the outer spherical vessel, whose
temperature-regulating jacket gives it a ribbed appearance.
Inside is a 1-meter-diameter sphere that simulates Earths solid
inner core. Both spheres rapidly rotate (see http://www.youtube.com/
user/n3umh), but the more hazardous aspect is the 12 tons of liquid
sodium that will fill the intervening space to model the liquid iron of the
outer core. In early studies conducted using water, the kinetic energy provided
by the two rotating spheres induced a variety of complex states, including turbu-
lent bi-stabilitythe switching between two distinct states over long time periods,
suggestive of the polarity reversals of Earths magnetic field. (D.S. Zimmerman, S.A. Triana,
D.P. Lathrop, Phys. Fluids 23, 065104, 2011; image courtesy of Dan Lathrop.)
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