Gillian Turner: The Great Mystery of Magnetism

Story by Isabel Herstell

Faculty of Science, 2017

Magnetic Fields?

The Earth’s magnetic field was for hundreds of years a mystery, one that is still today not completely solved.

This ‘shield’ around our Earth is responsible for the habitability of our planet. Without it, solar wind particles – fast moving protons and electrons – would reach the Earth’s surface, creating an extremely hostile environment, unsuited for life as we know it.

Gillian Turner, associate professor of Physics here at Victoria, has spent many years studying the Earth’s magnetic field, its polarity, and the ways in which it varies.

VIP Science Classes

In 2005, the scientific community celebrated 100 years since Albert Einstein released his three famous papers, including one on his theory of general relativity, with an International Year of Physics.

The Royal Society of New Zealand held a series of VIP classes aimed at introducing an invited group of Wellington artists and journalists to the basic physical concepts behind Einstein’s science. Here, Turner was asked to talk about magnetic fields.

Turner’s concise and excellently communicated presentation was well received.

After her lecture, Gillian was approached by Mary Varnham, publishing director at Awa Press and one of the ‘students’ in the class, about writing a book on “solving the great mystery of the earth’s magnetism”.

The Journey to North Pole, South Pole

“Mary from Awa Press approached me after the lecture to ask me if I had ever thought about writing a book,” says Turner.

“She came back once, she came back twice, and I eventually thought that this was something I needed to put time aside and do.” Inspired, Gillian booked four months' study leave and shifted overseas to Southampton, England, to write North Pole South Pole.

“Awa Press was based in a little cottage in Wellington Central. During the editing process I would go down there and sit across the table from Mary and we could go through all of the content - it was lovely stepping out of an academic environment into such a creative space.”

Stepping outside of her usual role at the University to explore a more creative way to communicate science really challenged Turner, but she felt that she received a lot of support. “I did receive a lot of support from the University, in particular from Paul Callaghan, a Physics Professor at Victoria, but also a very important person in the dissemination of science to the media and public.”

The book was first published in 2010.

The Aftermath

Magnetism could easily be considered complicated science, particularly by those without a background in physics.

What Turner’s book provides is not only an accessible and interesting explanation of the science behind the Earth’s magnetism – but it also walks the reader through the fascinating journey that has led to our modern day understanding. A journey that begins in 1269.

“Just as there are in the heavens two points more noteworthy than all the others … so also in this stone … there are two points, one North and one South” Petrus Peregrinus, 1269 (excerpt from North Pole, South Pole).

North Pole, South Pole has since been turned into a graphic novel, to educate children about magnetism in a way that is colourful and eye-catching, while still informative. This was given the title The Great Earth Magnet.

Looking to the Future

Turner has just completed a five-year Marsden-funded project looking at the behaviour of New Zealand’s magnetic field over the last 10,000 years. “Perhaps now it is time for another edition of North Pole, South Pole.