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Q: What if gravity acted like magnetism?

Physicist: The problem with magnetism and the electric force is that they tend to cancel themselves out. For example, if you have a positive charge the first thing it does is repel all the other positive charges around it and attract all the negative charges. In short order you end up with a positive and negative charge right next to each other, pulling and pushing on every other charge with the same force (however much the positive charge pulls, the negative charge next to it pushes and vice versa).

Same thing with magnets, if you have two bar magnets floating around, they’ll try to line up with their north side next to the other magnet’s south side.

As a result these “positive/negative” forces tend to balance out really fast. There are “dipole forces” (one charge might be a little closer, so it pulls just a skosh harder), but dipole forces are tiny and decrease much faster with distance (technically, all magnets are dipole). In your body right now you have somewhere in the neighborhood of 1028 or 1029 (between ten and a hundred thousand trillion trillion) charged particles in the form of protons and electrons. The number of extra, unbalanced charges on a good Van de Graff generator that’s dangerous to approach is less than a billionth of a billionth of that.

Point is; with magnets and charges you always have a problem with things canceling themselves out almost perfectly. The strength of the electric force between (for example) two protons is just a hell of a lot stronger than the gravitational force (about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times bigger), but you’d never know it since those huge forces are all balanced and cancelled out by all of the negative charges around.

Gravity, on the other hand, has only one kind of “charge”: matter. All matter attracts all matter, so despite being far and away the weakest force, gravity is basically the last man standing on large scales. You might imagine that if gravity acted like magnetism there would be planets and stars pushing and pulling each other every which way, but in all likelihood we just wouldn’t have large structures in the universe like planets in the first place.

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