We learned in Chapter 1 that magnetic fields are generated by electric currents. Given that there are no wires leading into or out of permanent magnets, you may well ask, “Where are the currents?” At the atomic level, the electric currents come from the motions of the electrons. From here quantum mechanics quickly gets esoteric, but some rudimentary understanding is helpful. In this chapter we will cover the bare minimum necessary to grasp the essentials of rock magnetism.
In Chapter 1 we took the classical (prequantum mechanics) approach and suggested that the orbit of an electron about the nucleus could be considered a tiny electric current with a correspondingly tiny magnetic moment. But quantum physics tells us that this “planetary” view of the atom cannot be true. An electron zipping around a nucleus would generate radio waves, losing energy and eventually would crash into the nucleus.
Apparently, this does not happen, so the classical approach is fatally flawed and we must turn to quantum mechanics.
In quantum mechanics, electronic motion is stabilized by the fact that electrons can only have certain energy states; they are quantized. The energy of a given electron can be described in terms of solutions, Ψ, to something called Schrödinger’s wave equation. The function Ψ(r,θ,ϕ) gives the probability of finding an electron at a given position. [Remember from Chapter 2 that r,θ,ϕ are the three spherical coordinates.] It depend on three special quantum numbers (n,l,m):
 (3.1) 
The number n is the socalled “principal” quantum number. The R_{n}^{l}(r) are functions specific to the element in question and the energy state of the electron n. It is evaluated at an effective radius r in atomic units. The Y _{l}^{m} are a fully normalized complex representation of the spherical harmonics introduced in Section 2.2. For each level n, the number l ranges from 0 to n1 and m from l backwards to l.
The lowest energy of the quantum wave equations is found by setting n equal to unity and both l and m to zero. Under these conditions, the solution to the wave equation is given by:
 (3.2) 
where Z is the atomic number and ρ is 2Zr∕n. Note that at this energy level, there is no dependence of Y on ϕ or θ. Substituting these two equations into Equation 3.1 gives the probability density Ψ for an electron as a function of radius of r. This is sketched as the line in Figure 3.1. Another representation of the same idea is shown in the inset, whereby the density of dots at a given radius reflects the probability distribution shown by the solid curve. The highest dot density is found at a radius of about one atomic unit, tapering off the farther away from the center of the atom. Because there is no dependence on θ or ϕ the probability distribution is a spherical shell. All the l,m = 0 shells are spherical and are often referred to as the 1s, 2s, 3s shells, where the numbers are the energy levels n. A surface with equal probability is a sphere and example of one such shell is shown in Figure 3.2a.
For l = 1, m will have values of 1, 0 and 1 and the Y _{l}^{m}(ϕ,θ)s are given by:
As might be expected, the shells for l = 2 are even more complicated that for l = 1. These shells are called “d” shells and two examples are shown in Figure 3.2c and d.

Returning to the tiny circuit idea, somehow the motion of the electrons in their shells acts like an electronic circuit and creates a magnetic moment. In quantum mechanics, the angular momentum vector of the electron L is quantized, for example as integer multiples of ℏ, the “reduced” Planck’s constant (or h _ 2π where h = 6.63 x 10^{34} Js). The magnetic moment arising from the orbital angular momentum is given by:
 (3.3) 
This is known as the Bohr magneton.
So far we have not mentioned one last quantum number, s. This is the “spin” of the electron and has a value of ±1 2. The spin itself produces a magnetic moment which is given by 2sm_{b}, hence is numerically identical to that produced by the orbit.
Atoms have the same number of electrons as protons in order to preserve charge balance. Hydrogen has but one lonely electron which in its lowest energy state sits in the 1s electronic shell. Helium has a happy pair, so where does the second electron go? To fill in their electronic shells, atoms follow three rules:
Each unpaired spin has a moment of one Bohr magneton m_{b}. The elements with the most unpaired spins are the transition elements which are responsible for most of the paramagnetic behavior observed in rocks. For example, in Figure 3.3 we see that Mn has a structure of: (1s^{2}2s^{2}2p^{6}3s^{2}3p^{6})3d^{5}4s^{2}, hence has five unpaired spins and a net moment of 5 m_{b}. Fe has a structure of (1s^{2}2s^{2}2p^{6}3s^{2}3p^{6})3d^{6}4s^{2} with a net moment of 4 m_{b}, In minerals, the transition elements are in a variety of oxidation states. Fe commonly occurs as Fe^{2+} and Fe^{3+}. When losing electrons to form ions, transition metals lose the 4s electrons first, so we have for example, Fe^{3+} with a structure of (1s^{2}2s^{2}2p^{6}3s^{2}3p^{6})3d^{5}, or 5 m_{b}. Similarly Fe^{2+} has 4 m_{b} and Ti^{4+} has no unpaired spins. Iron is the main magnetic species in geological materials, but Mn^{2+} (5 m_{b}) and Cr^{3+} (3 m_{b}) occur in trace amounts.