One of the very first facts you learn about electromagnetism—long before you walk into your first physics class—is that every magnet has two poles. Cut a bar magnet in half and you wind up with two magnets, each of which has its own north and south poles.
Strangely, though, there is no fundamental reason why that has to be the case.
A few years ago researcher came across evidence of something that looks and acts very much like a naturally occurring monopole would. These monopoles are confined to particular materials, and they arise only when the spins of atoms are aligned in just the right way. But unlike their still elusive, relatively unconstrained brethren, they do offer some hope of new technologies.
One day, we might be able to manipulate magnetic charges much as we control the flow of electric charges today. It’s almost impossible to predict where this new capability could lead; we could see devices that are capable of performing computations or storing information or energy in entirely new ways. But before we can know what monopoles can do, we must get to the bottom of how they behave.