The Spinning Magnet

The Spinning Magnet

by Alanna Mitchell
  • critically-acclaimed
  • from-ontario
  • science

Award-winning science journalist Alanna Mitchell presents an utterly engrossing narrative history of ideas and science that readers of Stephen Greenblatt and Sam Kean will love. Our future might be a world without electronics or protection from lethal solar radiation. Through hundreds of years of human interest in the Earth’s magnetic poles, the North and South have traded places without consequence —but some scientists worry that the next reversal could be catastrophic for modern society. Award-winning science journalist Alanna Mitchell tells the fascinating history of one of the universe’s four fundamental physical forces: electromagnetism.

From investigations into magnetism in thirteenth century feudal France, to the discovery that 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. The recent finding that 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 begin the years-long reversal process, Earth is unprotected from solar radiation storms that would, among other things, wipe out all electromagnetic technology. No satellites, no Internet, no smartphones—maybe no power grid at all. One leading US researcher is already drawing maps of the parts of the planet that would likely become uninhabitable.


Alanna Mitchell, author

Alanna Mitchell is a strategic communications expert who specializes in translating science into narrative. She was the science and environment reporter at The Globe and Mail for fourteen years, until she left daily journalism to devote herself to writing on science. She has been named the best environmental reporter in the world by the Reuters Foundation and was invited to undertake a guest fellowship at Oxford University. Mitchell is an associate at the International Institute for Sustainable Development and is a frequent speaker and guest lecturer on environmental issues. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two children.


  • Mitchell draws us into a spellbinding scientific detective story, told over the ages, as she nimbly explains magnetism’s role in everything that matters. Each chapter is filled with exciting new revelations written in clear crisp prose. A skilled writer, Mitchell puts magnetism on the map! - Timothy J. Jorgensen, author of Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation
  • Alanna Mitchell pulls off the rare trifecta in science writing: an engrossing plot of a planetary mystery, authentic character portraits of scientists and their passion for their work, and explanations of complex physics in easily understandable terms. - Sabine Stanley, Professor Earth and Planetary Sciences and the Applied Physics Lab, Johns Hopkins University
  • There is little doubt that the magnetic field will reverse again. In the meantime, The Spinning Magnet gives readers a nontechnical description of electromagnetism and a measured assessment of the possible consequences for our modern world if it does so in the near future.” - Science
  • Mitchell’s nontechnical discussion is substantively accessible, and her vivid writing holds the reader’s attention… Pop science readers and science policy wonks will find plenty to think—and worry—about here. - Publishers Weekly Link to review
  • Captivating scientific history… an invaluable contribution to the popular science shelf. - Booklist
  • [Mitchell] makes vivid the process of science… A complex, well-told account of ‘this spinning magnet we live on. - Kirkus Reviews Link to review
  • A fascinating untold story of science that is full of mystery and intrigue, and written with a great deal of style. - Mark Miodownik, author of New York Times Bestseller Stuff Matters
  • In "The Spinning Magnet", Alanna Mitchell weaves a scientific mystery in the best possible way, exploring the ancient puzzle of our planet’s electromagnetic field, following scientists as they attempt to decipher its clues, leading us to a better understanding of Earth’s invisible and powerful electromagnetic field. The result is a compelling tale of unseen and unforeseen natural forces - and a reminder that we’ve staked our home on a planet that remains infinitely strange, dangerous - and ever full of wonder. - Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
  • The Earth’s magnetic field. . . tends to be taken for granted. In reality it’s a fickle, ill-understood phenomenon. Alanna Mitchell delves into the mystery, in an engrossing book that features a new surprise on every page. - Sean Carroll, author of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
  • In the same vein as Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, Mitchell’s captivating book shocks us into contemplating the physical forces that keep our world spinning that we take for granted every day. - BookPage Link to review
  • Leaves readers tingling with anticipation… A thorough investigation of the scientific discoveries surrounding the electromagnetic field and what might happen when this force field fails. - Shelf Awareness
  • Mitchell’s portrait gallery is researched with a depth and breadth that make its protagonists’ triumphs and failures compelling. She also gives entertaining accounts of today’s working geoscientists. […] Her interviews provide insights into their thoughts and actions that transcend the stereotypes of inscrutable nerd or heroic explorer. - Nature Link to review
  • 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. - Library Journal
  • We don’t usually feature nonfiction books... but science journalist Mitchell’s narrative history of the science of electromagnetism — with a look toward the future and the imminent, inevitable reversing of the North and South Poles — sounds as thrilling as any scifi tale. - io9 Link to review

Rights Holder

Rights Holder: Cooke International



rights sold: Canada English (Penguin Canada), Simplified Chinese (The Commercial Press), Japanese (Kobunsha Co.), UK & ANZ English (Oneworld), US English (Dutton)

rights available: World

Additional Information

number of pages: 320

publication date: 01/30/2018

Original language of pub: English

Materials Available: finished book