Shortlisted for the 2018 Science Writers and Communicators of Canada Book Awards
Our future might be a world without electronics or protection from lethal solar radiation
The magnetic North Pole will eventually trade places with the South Pole. Satellite evidence suggests to some scientists that the move has already begun, but most still think it won't happen for many decades. All agree that it has happened many times before and will happen again. But this time it will be different. It will be a very bad day for modern civilization.
Award-winning science journalist Alanna Mitchell tells in The Spinning Magnet the fascinating history of one of the four fundamental physical forces in the universe, electro-magnetism. From investigations into magnetism in 13th century feudal France and the realization six hundred years later in the Victorian era that electricity and magnetism were essentially the same, to the discovery that the earth was itself a magnet, spinning in space with two poles and that those poles aperiodically reverse, this is an utterly engrossing narrative history of ideas and science that readers of Stephen Greenblatt and Sam Kean will love.
But the recent finding that the Earth's magnetic force field is decaying ten times faster than previously thought, portending an imminent pole reversal, ultimately gives this story a spine tingling urgency. When the poles switch, a process that takes many years, the Earth is unprotected from solar radiation storms that would, among other things, wipe out all electromagnetic technology. No satellites, no internet, no smart phones--maybe no power grid at all. Such potentially cataclysmic solar storms are not unusual. The last one occurred in 2012 and we avoided returning to the dark ages only because the part of the sun that erupted happened to be facing away from the Earth. One leading US researcher is already drawing maps of the parts of the planet that would likely become uninhabitable.
ALANNA MITCHELL is an acclaimed science journalist and author of Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, which won the Grantham Prize for excellence in environmental journalism. She won a National Magazine Award in 2014 for a feature on the biology of extinction and in 2015 won a New York International Radio Festival Silver Medal for her science documentary on neonicotinoid pesticides. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Science section and CBC radio's Quirks and Quarks.