Flipped out

What magnetism’s mysteries mean (and don’t) for Earth

Every author hopes that their book release will make a splash, and Alanna Mitchell’s new book has certainly done so. That’s the good news. The bad (or, at least, awkward) news is that after the first wave of coverage, there was a second, smaller splash, in which Mitchell was taken to task over the validity of one of the book’s central themes, namely that a reversal of Earth’s magnetic field could wreak havoc with life on our planet.

Let’s look briefly at this initial media splash. In January, Mitchell wrote an article summarizing some of the main ideas in the book for Undark, a (very good) online science magazine. (Disclosure: Mitchell helped organize a book event where she and I both spoke, in Winnipeg, some years ago.) After the Undark article appeared, numerous media outlets picked up the story, almost all of them (as far as I can tell) playing up the doomsday angle. Sample headlines include: “Earth’s magnetic poles could...