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The spinning magnet : the force that created the modern world - and could destroy it / Alanna Mitchell.

By: Mitchell, Alanna.
Material type: materialTypeLabelBookPublisher: London, England : Oneworld, 2018Copyright date: ©2018Description: ix, 323 pages ; 23 cm.Content type: text Media type: unmediated Carrier type: volumeISBN: 9781786074249 (hardback).Subject(s): Electromagnetism | Magnetic fields | Geomagnetism | Solar radiation -- Health aspects | Earth (Planet) -- MantleDDC classification: 538/.7 Summary: North is north and south is south. Or is it? Every once in a long while, the Earths magnetic poles switch places. Its happened many times in deep history, but never since humans walked the planet. After the next big switch, our compasses will point the wrong way and we will no longer be able to see the aurora borealis in Iceland. But thats not all. It might just push us back into the Stone Age. Beginning with the first investigations into electromagnetism, The Spinning Magnet charts a fascinating history of one of the most powerful forces in the universe. Award-winning science journalist Alanna Mitchell reveals how the Victorians made their pivotal discoveries, delves into unseen and unforeseen natural forces that threaten our planet, and warns of a possible future where solar radiation storms wipe out power grids and electronic communication across the globe.
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Enhanced descriptions from Syndetics:

Many times through deep history Earth's magnetic poles have switched places, leaving our planet's protective shield weaker and life vulnerable to devastating solar storms. The last time it happened was 780,000 years ago, long before humans emerged, but it won't be long until it happens again.

And when it does, will it send us back to the Stone Age?

The Spinning Magnet is a fascinating insight into what may lie ahead.

From the pivotal discoveries of Victorian scientists to the possibility of solar radiation wiping out power grids, and the secrets of electromagnetism, Alanna Mitchell reveals the truth behind one of the most powerful forces in the universe.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

North is north and south is south. Or is it? Every once in a long while, the Earths magnetic poles switch places. Its happened many times in deep history, but never since humans walked the planet. After the next big switch, our compasses will point the wrong way and we will no longer be able to see the aurora borealis in Iceland. But thats not all. It might just push us back into the Stone Age. Beginning with the first investigations into electromagnetism, The Spinning Magnet charts a fascinating history of one of the most powerful forces in the universe. Award-winning science journalist Alanna Mitchell reveals how the Victorians made their pivotal discoveries, delves into unseen and unforeseen natural forces that threaten our planet, and warns of a possible future where solar radiation storms wipe out power grids and electronic communication across the globe.

Excerpt provided by Syndetics

Jacques Kornprobst, the man who can read the secrets of the rocks, was agitated. He had arrived twenty minutes early to pick me up at the hotel in Clermont‑Ferrand, an ancient French university town perched on an annealed crack in the planet's crust. He had the entry code at the ready to get into the free parking lot behind the building. The code had failed him. Some drivers cruise the streets nonchalantly, certain that the perfect parking spot will open up at just the right time. Kornprobst was not among them. Parking in this city of 150,000 had become trouble‑ some over the decades he had lived there, and as he had mapped out the day's tightly choreographed itinerary he had made intricate plans about where to park. And now, the first parking spot of the day had fallen through. Inside the hotel he sprinted, red‑faced, fingertips frigid in the spring chill. "Kornprobst!" he rapped out as he met me for the first time. Then he turned swiftly to the reception desk to let off a stream of injured French, explaining to the bewildered woman sitting there--she had been so friendly earlier, solicitous about replenishing the croissant basket and tinkering with the café‑au‑lait machine--about the affront. He had called the day before to secure the code. And now, today, he said, chin thrust slightly forward, it was malfunctioning. Abruptly, she left through a back door. He darted out front to a tiny blue Renault car that was parked haphazardly on a curve at the corner, performed a roundabout U‑turn through the city's tortured roads, and then nosed up to the gate with its uncooperative code. The receptionist stood there, punching in numbers, shivering. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. Finally, the barrier be‑ gan to rise and the receptionist, without so much as a glance behind her, returned inside to her desk. Kornprobst smiled grimly, thrust the little car into gear, gunned the engine, and zoomed triumphantly into a parking spot. He was watching the clock. He was on a mission to memorialize the life and work of Bernard Brunhes, a French physicist who, along with his research assistant Pierre David, made an astounding, violently unsettling, and controversial find at the turn of the last century. Brunhes, whose name is pronounced "brune," discovered that the planet's two magnetic poles--north and south--had once switched places. In the decades following his discovery, his colleagues, originally aghast at Brunhes's finding, proved that the poles have reversed not just once, but many times on an unpredictable, or "aperiodic," schedule. The last time was 780,000 years ago. But despite the fact that our current magnetic epoch is named after him, Brunhes has largely slipped out of the scientific memory. He does not even rate his own entry in the Encyclopedia of Geomagnetism and Paleomagnetism, the bible of the discipline of reading patterns in the Earth's magnetic fields. Nor is he lionized in France, usually so careful to honor its own. In fact, he's all but unknown even in his homeland, along with his grand scientific finding that the poles can switch places, that up can become down. Kornprobst, a fellow physicist, felt that he must right this wrong. He was so committed to Brunhes's memory that some years ago he took the trouble to find the spot in the countryside where Brunhes hacked a piece of crumbly terracotta rock--similar to the stuff of Greek vases--out of a roadcut and made his great discovery. Kornprobst painstakingly pieced together the clues about where it could be and is one of a handful of people in the world who can usually find it. The first time he made the pilgrimage to the site, he left frustrated, having failed to identify the right seam of rock. He's found it several times since, but it's so overgrown, so unmarked, that success is al‑ ways touch and go. Kornprobst thought that Brunhes should at least have a commem‑ orative panel at the university in Clermont‑Ferrand, so he sweated through a couple of years writing to geological agencies and eminent physicists all over the world jostling their elbows about Brunhes's contribution to science, raising the money to erect it. Then he arranged for a ceremony and lecture to accompany its inauguration at the university in 2014. It was through that ceremony that I found Kornprobst. He wrote an article about it for Eos, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. I read it and sent him an email asking him if he would help me understand why Brunhes was so important and maybe even find that seam of terracotta. He wrote back thirteen minutes later to say he would be delighted. I was at the hotel in Clermont‑Ferrand two weeks later. Sporting a thick, off‑white cable‑knit sweater the same hue as his rakish hair, Kornprobst left the car in the lot and we set off briskly on foot from the hotel through the back streets of Clermont‑Ferrand. It is one of the oldest cities in France, founded more than two millennia ago on the site of what was then a sacred grove of trees. And so we were marching through time, across the history of science. Up the road named after Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and paleontologist who deeply offended the Vatican for asserting that the book of Genesis is more allegory than fact. Past the geology depart‑ ment of the downtown campus of Université Blaise Pascal, named after the seventeenth‑century mathematician and physicist whose seminal experiment on barometric pressure was conducted a few kilometers outside the city by a brother‑in‑law ("There is the belief that Pascal experimented with pressure here," Kornprobst declaimed, pointing vigorously down the street, "but it's not true!"). Across a road named after the nineteenth‑century zoologist Karl Kessler. And finally, to rue de Rabanesse, named after the tiny pale stone Renaissance castle that was Brunhes's home and first observatory. Kornprobst gestured to it triumphantly, eyebrows raised, as if it explained a great deal. It looked like nothing out of the ordinary. It was standing forgotten on an overgrown patch of land across the street from a busy art school, surrounded by two layers of forbidding wire fence. Many of its lower windows--once elegant--were partially filled in with cement blocks. The parging that had covered the volcanic fieldstone that made up its walls had decayed, leaving gaps along the seams so you could see how it had all been fitted together. Its turret, where Brunhes collected meteorological information beginning in 1900, was still sturdy, reaching six floors into the sky, fifteenth‑century iron fretwork still robust. This observatory is where the tale of Brunhes begins. And where the tale of Brunhes begins, so too does the story of the discovery of the planet's long string of pole reversals. And that story, in turn, contains the tale of the mysterious magnetic organism in the core of the planet and how it has become deeply disturbed once more, yet again deciding whether to reverse. It was here that Brunhes, whose name means "brown" in the Occitan language of the ancient troubadours of this land, began to dream of understanding magnetism, the Earth's secret power. We never feel it and rarely see it, but all the same, scientists and philosophers have been trying to understand it for thousands of years. For most of that time, people have imagined it to be local and transient. Magic, even. And fickle magic at that. In fact, magnetism is one of the few essential powers of the universe. To understand it, you have to go back in time to the birth of the universe, to see how the universe is arranged. And you have to do that in the company of theoretical physicists, who have developed the most precise mathematical laws so far to describe reality.   Excerpted from The Spinning Magnet: The Force That Created the Modern World and Could Destroy It by Alanna Mitchell All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Reviews provided by Syndetics

Library Journal Review

Journalist Mitchell's (Sea Sick) narrative of progress in our understanding of Earth's electromagnetic field and its patterns is told via biographies of key researchers, including Petrus Peregrinus (13th century), James Clark Ross (19th century), and Inge Lehmann (20th century), among others. The author's journalistic style makes the book accessible to lay readers and is especially evident in her personal descriptions of meetings with French geologist and volcanologist Jacques Kornprobst and Caltech physicist Sean Carroll. Mitchell's simple definitions of terms allow the narrative to flow smoothly; her desire to understand Earth's magnetic system was sparked by seeing the Northern Lights and by her son's organic chemistry curriculum. During her research, she found evidence that Earth's magnetic poles have reversed in the past and will do so again-hence the dramatic subtitle. Some chapter titles are also alarmist, such as "Horrors the Lights Foretold." -VERDICT An intriguing story of humankind's recent and evolving understanding of the integral electromagnetic properties of our planet that should hold the interest of both teen and adult readers.-Sara R. Tompson, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Lib., Archives & Records Section, -Pasadena, CA © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Review

Canadian science journalist Mitchell (Sea Sick) investigates critical yet little-discussed concerns for the future of our world in this narrative history of magnetism and study of periodical changes in Earth's magnetic field. She begins with some giant steps through time to explain magnetism, starting with the big bang and running up to 19th-century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell's epic mathematical equations that show how electricity, magnetism, and light are all aspects of one another. The historical background is braided with scenes from Mitchell's quest to find the rocks that French physicist Bernard Brunhes used to prove that Earth's magnetic poles have periodically switched places. In the latter half of the book, Mitchell examines evidence that the Earth's magnetic field is weakening-which indicates an upcoming pole shift-and explains the potential effects of such a shift on life around the globe, including electrical grids' increased vulnerability to solar storms and harm to animals that rely on magnetism for navigation. Mitchell's nontechnical discussion is substantively accessible, and her vivid writing holds the reader's attention. Occasionally, elements of the narrative can be hard to follow, and diagrams and figures would have been helpful in clarifying the more complex ideas. Pop science readers and science policy wonks will find plenty to think-and worry-about here. Agent: Ron Eckel, Cooke Agency (Canada). (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

Compasses and refrigerator magnets are so common around the world that almost everyone is familiar with the mysterious, invisible force they harness. Yet a deeper understanding of electromagnetism's power and ubiquitous presence throughout the universe has mostly been the province of chemists and astrophysicists. In this captivating scientific history concerning one giant magnet in particular, our spinning Earth, award-winning Canadian journalist Mitchell does her best to make electromagnetism more comprehensible to lay readers. Presented as a guidebook to history's key discoveries about the phenomenon and to the men behind them, Mitchell traces our growing awareness of magnetism, especially its alignment within our planet's core and two poles, from the Middle Ages to modern times. With leading contemporary geologists and researchers providing insights from the sidelines, we meet such scientific pioneers as French physicist Bernard Brunhes, transformer inventor Michael Faraday, and seismologist Inge Lehmann. Mitchell ends on a sobering note, revealing evidence that an imminent magnetic pole reversal could cripple our energy grids. This immersion in magnetism is an invaluable contribution to the popular science shelf.--Hays, Carl Copyright 2017 Booklist

Kirkus Book Review

An award-winning Canadian science journalist tells the story of the Earth's magnetic field.Deemed "a fleeting magic" by the ancients, our planet's magnetic forcegenerated in the Earth's coreholds matter together and makes a giant magnet of the Earth, with north and south poles. With the help of modern scientists, Mitchell (Malignant Metaphor: Confronting Cancer Myths, 2015, etc.) traces our growing understanding of the phenomenon through the "investigations of the Middle Ages, the electrical exploits of the Renaissance, and the compulsions of the Victorians." Leading geophysicists and others walk the author through the lives and experiments of many pioneering scientists, beginning with the 13th-century French engineer Petrus Peregrinus, who first tested the properties of magnetism. Mitchell takes us to an unmarked corner of rural France, where physicist Bernard Brunhes (1867-1910) discovered evidence in a "fabled" piece of rock that Earth's two magnetic poles have often switched places (most recently 780,000 years ago). By 1840, notes the author, 30 permanent observatories were studying magnetism. As she recounts the stories of scientists like Hans Christian Oersted, a Dane who studied the relationship between magnetism and electricity, the Italians Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta, Michael Faraday, inventor of the transformer, and seismologist Inge Lehmann, who discovered Earth's inner core, she makes vivid the process of science and the culture of scientific meetings. For all that is known, scientists still do not fully understand "the mysterious goings-on" at the planet's core. We cannot predict when the poles will next reverse, though such a reversal could have devastating impacts in our high-tech, networked world: the magnetic field protects against solar radiation. Mitchell's text sometimes borders on the technical, but patient readers will be rewarded by her combination of thoughtful conversations with, say, the editor of Faraday's papers and her encounters with geophysicist at various conferences.A complex, well-told account of "this spinning magnet we live on." Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.