As I was browsing through the Guardian Science section a couple of days ago, I noticed this video:
The caption calls the protagonist, a six-year-old Croatian child, Ivan Stoiljkovic — “the magnetic boy.” While the Guardian may be right in saying he has “an extraordinary talent: the ability to attract metallic objects, from coins to heavy frying pans, to his body,” there is nothing magnetic about this boy’s special skill.
If Ivan had indeed magnetic powers, he wouldn’t have the need to bend slightly backwards to keep the items stuck to his body. In fact, he could bend forwards and they wouldn’t fall.
Another clue that it is not because of magnetism that these objects stick, is that some of the items Ivan holds, such as a plastic remote control and a mobile phone, are nonmetallic. Plastic is not magnetic so Ivan’s ability to attract it is not magnetic either.
So why can he attract objects to his body? Because he’s very sticky.
Sticky substances, like adhesives, are characterized by a property called viscoelasticity, that is, they behave both like a fluid (viscous) and a solid (elastic). An old New York Times blog post on “The Science of Sticky” describes this property using Silly Putty:
A ball of Silly Putty is elastic, like a rubbery solid. But over time, it’ll also flow like a viscous liquid. The flowing part is important, so that the material makes its way into all the nooks and crannies of a surface. That enables many chemical bonds to form between the material and the surface.
Basically, a sticky substance is one that is able to come into intimate contact with a surface but also has some internal stiffness so that it is able to be deformed without easily breaking.
As it turns out, our skin is viscoelastic, with some types of skin being stickier than others. While you may be unable to stick spoons or frying pans to your chest, you probably noticed your bare skin attaching itself to a leather sofa or a plastic seat. You have experienced the natural adhesive of your body in action.
Human skin is covered with grease and oils, which make it very even and smooth. If the material in contact with the skin is equally smooth, there is a large surface area where chemical bonds can form and, hence, it is easier for the material to stick.
This is exactly what’s happening with Ivan. The skin on his young, hairless chest is very smooth and stickier than usual. Furthermore, all the objects he holds to his body, particularly the heavier ones, have very smooth surfaces. So they stick.
Apropos of another “magnetic boy,” Benjamin Radford wrote a piece about 3 months ago on Discovery News about people that claim to be magnetic and about the lack of evidence that they do indeed have such power. He concludes it nicely:
There’s no real secret or mystery to it: Anyone who’s seen a child with a spoon on his or her nose has seen it before. So are these people faking for attention, or do they really believe they have these powers? Most likely, they really believe they have special abilities. The only reason it seems unusual is that very few people spend their free time sticking spoons, knives, and small plates on their bare chests to see if they stick.
Clearly, Ivan and his family have nothing better to do with their free time.