• The Spinning Magnet

  • The Electromagnetic Force that Created the Modern World - and Could Destroy It
  • By: Alanna Mitchell
  • Narrated by: P.J. Ochlan
  • Length: 9 hrs and 37 mins
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars (72 ratings)

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The Spinning Magnet

By: Alanna Mitchell
Narrated by: P.J. Ochlan
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Publisher's Summary

An engrossing history of the science of one of the four fundamental physical forces in the universe, electromagnetism, right up to the latest indications that the poles are soon to reverse and destroy the world's power grids and electronic communications

A cataclysmic planetary phenomenon is gathering force deep within the Earth. 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, electromagnetism. From investigations into magnetism in 13th-century feudal France and the realization 600 years later in the Victorian era that electricity and magnetism were essentially the same, to the discovery that Earth was itself a magnet, spinning in space with two poles and that those poles aperiodically reverse, this is a utterly engrossing narrative history of ideas and science that listeners of Stephen Greenblatt and Sam Kean will love.

The recent finding that Earth's magnetic force field is decaying 10 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, 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. 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 Earth. One leading US researcher is already drawing maps of the parts of the planet that would likely become uninhabitable.

©2018 Alanna Mitchell (P)2018 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

"The Earth's magnetic field -- an invisible cloak that shields our bodies and our technologies from deadly harm -- 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 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

"A fascinating untold story of science that is full of mystery and intrigue, and written with a great deal of style." (Mark Miodownik, New York Times best-selling author of Stuff Matters; winner of the Royal Society’s Winton Prize) 

What listeners say about The Spinning Magnet

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Important topic, not what I was looking for

We need more pop sci books on magnetism. An elementary student informed me that we don't know how magnetism works. That's huge. This book is worth reading because your options are limited. We need a scientist to tackle the topic though. As a scientist, I felt that the author wasn't able to hone in on the fascinating scientific questions and got lost in historical details. I was left thinking, terra cotta, WTF? Magnetosomes-glossed over. I want details of how the experiments were done. What IS natural terra cotta, because I've only seen it in ceramics class?! Tantalizing ideas not fleshed out. I found myself googling, okay what did the Mayans know? What is lodestone? I need a better foundation on the basics of how the magnetic force works on the atomic & molecular level. Next I need details of how early experiments were done, like how EXACTLY were these needles on silk thread magnetized, and what exactly do I need to do with wax on paper to replicate stuff for curious young minds? Finally, I want to hear modern physicists "weigh in" on current thinking. What is the relationship, if any, of magnetism to gravity? How did magnetism originate? (Google says magnetite was probably struck by lightning). The obvious origin questions, like "Are there magnetic meteors?" don't come up, presumably because the author approaches the topic like a journalist, and she can only talk to so many scientists. There's good info here, but it will leave you with more questions than answers.

2 people found this helpful

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Super listening

What did you love best about The Spinning Magnet?

It is a unique book that deals with a scientific subject rarely addressed by other books--earth's magnetism. Although the author is not a scientist, he has superbly brought together developments in physics and geophysics and woven it as a story which includes great scientists of the past who contributed to the discoveries. The author actually visited many of the laboratories mentioned in the book and interviewed key scientists Thus, the book deals with a very interesting subject but also has a very human touch and humor.

What about P.J. Ochlan’s performance did you like?

The narration was pleasant, well paced and clear

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

Yes, but I could not

Any additional comments?

I learned a lot of new things about terrestrial and celestial magnetism that I was unaware of despite having studied physics and despite keeping up with the developments in physics.

2 people found this helpful

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great but super duper boring

Very informative. Great history. Flawless editing. EXTREMELY boring. I've read many history books, geology books, and The Great Courses, some exceeding 40hrs in length, but this one was the most difficult to finish. I literally had to turn it off several times while driving because it was putting me to sleep. That being said, I'm happy to have read it and gained the new knowledge.

1 person found this helpful

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Learned quite a bit, narrated nicely...

Information on the EMF field existing in nature and the bodies that be that delved into it's treasury of geographic history. Worth listening to thrice.

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Great read. Makes a complex field comprehensible.

Reall enjoyed listening to this book. I wish there were more like it on Audible. If you're not a physicist or an expert in electromagnets but are generally interested in the field or just plain old enjoy science, this is a great book.

I only wish there was a companion PDF to download as many of the initial descriptions of how the physics work would be better absorbed with illustrations to accompany the descriptions.

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A great book about our magnetic earth

Enlightenment history and science at its best, and full of fun scholarship about my favorite invisible force: Magnetism!

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  • HT
  • 12-18-18

Meh

Not quite what I thought it would be. I had the impression when I got the audiobook that it would be more about the earth’s magnetic field, the impact it would have on human civilization. The author spent quite a lot of time on how scientists learned of electromagnetism, which I felt didn’t really mesh that well with the rest of the book; making this one of the few nonfiction books that I was not full engrossed in listening to. Most of the time I spent listening to it, I would zone out before coming back to listening with my almost full attention.

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Historical summary for the non-scientist

Mitchell does an excellent job of bringing what could otherwise be dry history to life. Her background and talents in the fields of literature and journalism are evident throughout. Earth's magnetic field science has not received broad coverage in the popular press. While her title selection reflects contemporary journalism's trend toward sensationalizing a title to grab attention, it does contain an naturally flowing combination of historical scientific development of our modern understanding of the earth's magnetic field and good story telling. A bit of side research reveals that all competent earth scientists would agree with the conclusion that a shift or even a flip in the magnetic poles will be catastrophic. Yet, the fact that the book made me curious enough to do side research probably indicates merit by itself! Mitchell makes it clear that a general consensus about the effects of a pole flip has not yet developed or may not yet be predictable.

If you are interested in gaining a general understanding of the earth's magnetic fields and their effect on earth's life systems via a popular science level delivery, you should give this book a try. Its highly informative and the reading performance is very good.

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informative in an engaging way! 😎

Some terminology a little hard to grasp, but the pace and explanations usually pulled me through to a facinating perception of our World...our lil' Blue Marble in Space! 😉

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  • Louise
  • 04-22-18

Start here

Would you consider the audio edition of The Spinning Magnet to be better than the print version?

I've not read the print version

What other book might you compare The Spinning Magnet to, and why?

There are a number of similar books that I would recommend - I'll mention them later.

Any additional comments?

If you have a vague understanding of current physics/cosmology, start here to rapidly expand your knowledge. The author is a journalist and gives a grounded (easily understandable) view of the way things work at the atomic level. I will be listening to this book again and again. It really is quite special (and scary for the future).
Then go to...
'The Quantum Astrologers Handbook' (Brooks - Quantum Mechanics - odd, but loved it)
'Reality Is Not What It Seems (Rovelli - Quantum Loop Theory - this guy is the best, I'm now a QLT believer)
'Our Mathematical Universe (Tegmark - multiverse but get's deeper into why maths is odd) then...
'Ripples in Spacetime (Schilling - GravWaves - amazing, v highly recommended).
I've just started on Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku. It's a few years out of date (pre-LHC) but you need the previous books mentioned to grasp some of the concepts he throws out as asides.