After decades of research proved that critters across the animal kingdom on Earth can sense our planet's magnetic field, a well-known geophysicist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Joe Kirschvink, has presented the first repeatable and verifiable evidence that humans have an ability to detect and respond to Earth's magnetic field too.
Over the past decades, Prof. Kirschvink has originated several ideas aimed at increasing our understanding of how biological evolution has influenced, and has been influenced by, major events on the surface of the Earth. He won the Richard P. Feynman Prize for teaching excellence at Caltech, and the William Gilbert Award from the American Geophysical Union.
As opposed to previous results in this field, Kirschvink's results are the first that can be repeated and verified. He has so far presented the results of tests performed on 24 human participants, and his paper is in progress. Kirschvink is sure humans have functioning magnetoreceptors and has received US$900,000 in funding to continue his research. There are currently three teams performing the tests, one is in the US, and the other two in Japan and New Zealand. A mobile lab is expected to be built soon too.
Kirschvink presented the results of his experiments at the 2016 meeting of the Royal Institute of Navigation in the UK. Details were provided to the public on June 23, 2016, in a Science Magazine article written by Eric Hand.
Kirschvink's team is testing humans for a subconscious magnetic sense by putting them in a Faraday Cage and applying magnetic fields. "Faraday Cage is the key," Kirschvink says. Its role is to screen out all electromagnetic noise.
The experiments began at the end of 2014.
Kirschvink was human subject No. 1. No. 19 is Keisuke Matsuda, a neuro-engineering graduate student from the University of Tokyo. Matsuda is replicating the experiment in Tokyo with a similar setup and same results.
"It’s absolutely reproducible, even in Tokyo,” Kirschvink says. “The doors are opening.”
Kirschvink favors a theory which proposes that miniature compass needles sit within receptor cells, either near the trigeminal nerve behind animals’ noses or in the inner ear. The needles, presumed to be made up of a strongly magnetic iron mineral called magnetite, would somehow open or close neural pathways.
"It’s part of our evolutionary history," says Kirschvink. "Magnetoreception may be the primal sense."
Featured image: Kirschvink in his lab's Faraday Cage - Caltech