One of my most favourite episodes of the new Cosmos (because, honestly, they are all so good) is Episode 10: “The Electric Boy”, which focuses on the life and discoveries of Michael Faraday. In particular, the episode emphasizes how the invention of the dynamo and the electric motor spurred on a whole new technological revolution. The electric motor is just ubiquitous now, even more so than smarter digital electronics, and we take it for granted as such a basic piece of technological craft. Yet it is in fact a marvel of science and technology. With its somewhat sensationalist title, The Spinning Magnet: The Force That Created the Modern World—and Could Destroy It captures some of that same sense of wonder. In addition to Faraday, science journalist Alanna Mitchell takes us on a tour through history, introducing us to the people who marvelled at, experimented on, and made discoveries about electromagnetism. Thanks to Dutton and NetGalley for the e-ARC.
As the title implies, the book focuses heavily on magnetism as it relates to our physical planet. There was quite a bit more geology and geophysics in here than one might initially expect (not that that’s a bad thing). Mitchell always links each point back to the central topic: our Earth is one, giant magnet, and the strength of the magnetic field plays an important role in protecting us from solar and cosmic radiation. Historically, understanding the way the magnetic field works—how it is laid out, and how it is changing—has been important for navigation and theoretical science. Now, though, as our technology base and even things like our power grids become increasingly dependent upon electronics, understanding the Earth’s magnetic field is increasingly a matter of survival.
Reading this gave me a serious hankering to read more of Dava Sobel, and it isn’t just because Mitchell briefly relates John Harrison’s development of the marine chronometer. Like Sobel, Mitchell has the talent for breaking down complicated scientific concepts and putting them into a socio-historical context. I do so love when scientists can cross the line into writing popular science books, but even when they do, their closeness to the topic colours the way they explain it. Science communicators have such an important niche in our society: they understand the science enough to represent it truthfully, but because they haven’t devoted a lifetime to researching it actively, they have enough distance to interpret rather than explain. Mitchell comfortably covers topics like vectors, electron valences, and wave-particle duality, in a way that isn’t going to make your head spin like the very electrons she’s talking about.
One important feature of The Spinning Magnet: it doggedly rejects the Great Man approach to telling stories about scientific discovery. Oh, it spotlights certain individuals in order to point out their contributions. Bernard Brunhes figures prominently, given that he is the originator of the idea of geomagnetic reversals. Some of the more usual suspects—Galvani, Volta, Franklin, Faraday—show up as well. Yet at every step of the way, Mitchell reminds us that science is ultimately, and has always been, a collaborative effort. This was true in the past, when each person stood on the shoulders of the giants who came before. It is true now, when scientists meet regularly in conferences to discuss all the things they have discovered that make their pet theories untrue. Although I feel like I could have done without a lot of the modern-day descriptions of where and how Mitchell met with the various people she interviewed that begin most of the chapters, I will give her credit for showing us how most contemporary scientists operate within this very interconnected community.
It was also delightful to spend some more time thinking about geology and geophysics. Much like Simon Winchester’s The Map That Changed the World, The Spinning Magnet is a potent reminder of how much we can learn about the history of our planet and our universe just by examining the rocks beneath our feet. There are so many stories these stones can tell us; I am constantly surprised and stunned by how much scientists can uncover by devising new and intricate ways to interrogate and interview these otherwise silent artifacts. I’ve always stereotypically seen myself as a “space” person; I like outer space and the impersonality of physics involving inhospitable regions of the cosmos. So it’s nice to have a reminder that our own planet has secrets of the universe to unlock as well, and that we have a lot to learn from it.
In the final chapters of the book, Mitchell turns to that sensationalist question implicit in the title: could a geomagnetic reversal be in the cards for our lifetimes, and if so, does that mean The End? Fortunately, she doesn’t buy into the hype. She pursues the question with the proper amount of skepticism. She points out the real dangers, such as the damage done by more intense solar storms back in the 1990s and early 2000s. She mentions the need for us to be prepared, to consider how better to shield our technology, to take this seriously—which, indeed, it seems like many countries are. Yet she is careful not to hype up the alarmist angle.
Even though this book, really, just confirms my long-stated belief that the Sun has it out for us all!
Goodreads tells me the hardcover version of this book clocks in at 300 pages. It’s always hard to tell in ebook form (this is the first book I read, by the way, on my brand new Kindle Paperwhite, huzzah for eInk!), but The Spinning Magnet felt very long to me. Maybe it’s simply because it has so many—thirty!—chapters, even if the chapters themselves aren’t as long. Mitchell certainly tries to be comprehensive. Yet I almost found myself wishing for … I don’t know … something more, some kind of story or theme to tie together everything that she shows us, beyond her quest to learn more about the obscure Brunhes or, of course, this spectre of geomagnetic reversal.
This is a satisfying read and one I’d happily recommend to anyone interested in the topic. It’s edifying without being confusing or patronizing, and there is so much to learn in here. Sometimes it goes off on a tangent or I got a little bored (and that isn’t necessarily Mitchell’s fault). Overall, though, The Spinning Magnet is a great example of what I like to see in my popular stories of science, history, and how they come together.