In geophysics, dynamo theory proposes a mechanism by which a celestial body such as the Earth or a star generates a magnetic field. The theory describes the process through which a rotating, convecting, and electrically conducting fluid can maintain a magnetic field over astronomical time scales.
When William Gilbert published de Magnete in 1600, he concluded that the Earth is magnetic and proposed the first theory for the origin of this magnetism: permanent magnetism such as that found in lodestone. In 1919, Joseph Larmor proposed that a dynamo might be generating the field. However, even after he advanced his theory, some prominent scientists advanced alternate theories. Einstein believed that there might be an asymmetry between the charges of the electron and proton so that the Earth's magnetic field would be produced by the entire Earth. The Nobel Prize winner Patrick Blackett did a series of experiments looking for a fundamental relation between angular momentum and magnetic moment, but found none.
Walter M. Elsasser, considered a "father" of the presently accepted dynamo theory as an explanation of the Earth's magnetism, proposed that this magnetic field resulted from electric currents induced in the fluid outer core of the Earth. He revealed the history of the Earth's magnetic field through pioneering the study of the magnetic orientation of minerals in rocks.
In order to maintain the magnetic field against ohmic decay (which would occur for the dipole field in 20,000 years), the outer core must be convecting. The convection is likely some combination of thermal and compositional convection. The mantle controls the rate at which heat is extracted from the core. Heat sources include gravitational energy released by the compression of the core, gravitational energy released by the rejection of light elements (probably sulfur, oxygen, or silicon) at the inner core boundary as it grows, latent heat of crystallization at the inner core boundary, and radioactivity of potassium, uranium and thorium.At the dawn of the 21st century, numerical modeling of the Earth's magnetic field has not been successfully demonstrated, but appears to be in reach. Initial models are focused on field generation by convection in the planet's fluid outer core. It was possible to show the generation of a strong, Earth-like field when the model assumed a uniform core-surface temperature and exceptionally high viscosities for the core fluid. Computations which incorporated more realistic parameter values yielded magnetic fields that were less Earth-like, but also point the way to model refinements which may ultimately lead to an accurate analytic model. Slight variations in the core-surface temperature, in the range of a few millikelvins, result in significant increases in convective flow and produce more realistic magnetic fields.