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Magnetic Overthrow

Physicists expose a hidden facet of a familiar phenomenon

While conducting experiments for his physics Ph.D. in the early 1990s, Dan Ralph suddenly found himself in unfamiliar terrain without a compass. Examining nanoscale sandwiches of magnetic and nonmagnetic materials in a Cornell University lab, Ralph discovered that voltages caused by electric currents passing perpendicularly through these layers would sometimes increase abruptly for no apparent reason. "Something kind of drastic was going on," he recalls.

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