Archiving “Geomagnetic Spikes” in Everyday Objects

[Image: One of the pots; photo by Oded Lipschits, courtesy NPR].

Ancient clay pottery in the Middle East has inadvertently recorded the Earth’s magnetic field, including evidence of an “astonishing geomagnetic spike.”

“All those years ago,” NPR reported earlier this week, “as potters continued to throw clay, the molten iron that was rotating deep below them tugged at tiny bits of magnetic minerals embedded in the potters’ clay. As the jars were heated in the kiln and then subsequently cooled, those minerals swiveled and froze into place like tiny compasses, responding to the direction and strength of the Earth’s magnetic field at that very moment.”

Archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef, one of the researchers on the project, has compared the process to a terrestrial “tape recorder,” and a particularly sensitive one at that: the resulting jars “provide an unprecedented look at the planet’s magnetic field over those six centuries, one that’s much harder to get from rocks.”

These accidental indices also indicate that the Earth’s magnetic field at the time was much stronger than expected; ominously, this “astonishing geomagnetic spike,” as mentioned above, could happen again. Indeed, the jars have “given scientists a glimpse of how intense the magnetic field can get—and the news isn’t good for a world that depends on electrical grids and high-tech devices,” Annalee Newitz writes for Ars Technica.

“The researchers note that this geomagnetic spike is similar to another that occurred in the 10th century BCE,” Newitz adds. “Data from the 10th century spike and this 8th century one indicate that such events were probably localized, not global. That said, they write that ‘the exact geographic expanse of this phenomenon has yet to be investigated, and the fact that these are very short-lived features that can be easily missed suggests that there is much more to discover.’”

This vision—of highly localized, mysterious geomagnetic storms frying electronics from below—is not only a great plot device for some burgeoning scifi novelist, it could also almost undoubtedly be weaponized: subterranean geomagnetic warfare against an entire region of the planet, short-circuiting every electrical device in sight.

[Image: One of the pots; photo by Oded Lipschits, courtesy NPR].

Of course, it’s also worth noting that this would still be happening: that is, today’s ceramics should still be “recording” the Earth’s magnetic field, even without any corresponding spike in that field’s strength. An invisible terrestrial forcefield is thus still inscribing itself inside objects in your kitchen cabinet or standing on your breakfast table. Everyday knick-knacks in retail stores around the world are still archives of planetary magnetism.

This also makes me wonder what other types of artifacts—clay figurines from nomadic Arctic tribes, mud bricks from central Africa—might also house geomagnetic records yet to be analyzed by modern technology. So what else might be discovered someday?

I’m reminded of the possibility that space weather—or “fossils of spacetime”—might be frozen into the built environment in the form of GPS glitches: hidden inside minute structural errors in large building projects, such as freeways, dams, and bridges, there might be evidence that our solar system is passing through “cosmic kinks” of dark matter.

In any case, read the original paper in PNAS; see also The New Yorker.

The Burglar’s Guide Has Arrived

At long last, after more than three years of research and travel, A Burglar’s Guide to the City is finally shipping.

It is a book about crime, policing, and the built environment, and how these forces mutually influence one another, from ancient Rome to contemporary Los Angeles, with a specific focus on the spatial peculiarities of breaking and entering.

I’ve already posted about the book at some length here on the blog—with many more posts available under the Burglar’s Guide tag—and there is also a standalone website worth checking out, as well, with links to reviews, book tour information, and some great blurbs.

However, for now, especially if this is the first you’ve heard of it, consider checking out an excerpt from the book over at The New York Times Magazine, an author profile over at the Wall Street Journal, a short segment about burglary and Los Angeles on NPR’s Marketplace, or a great review published in the Los Angeles Times.

There, Annalee Newitz writes that, “Despite its title, Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City won’t teach you how to break into houses. It won’t help you outsmart wily cat burglars with ingenious home alarm systems, either. Instead, it explores something a lot weirder and more interesting: Manaugh argues that burglary is built into the fabric of cities and is an inevitable outgrowth of having architecture in the first place.”

Writing for the Barnes & Noble Review, meanwhile, Sarah Weinman—editor of the recent collection Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 1950s—said that, after reading the book, “my worldview is altered a little bit more, and far for the better, as a result.” Patrick Lyons at VICE found the book “an exhilarating, perspective-shifting read,” and the BBC recommended it as one of their “Ten books to read in April,” calling it “a surprising and fascinating true-crime epic.”

Most fun of all was doing an interview with Gastropod—a podcast about food, science, and history cohosted by my wife, Nicola Twilley, and journalist Cynthia Graber—discussing food heists, potato bombs, fast-food burglaries, and much more.

Amazon chose A Burglar’s Guide as one of their “Best Books of April 2016,” adding that it is a “caper of a book.” *Update: I also got to speak about the book with Curbed for their recently launched podcast, on “why panic rooms are going to outlast the pyramids.”

In any case, I’d be over the moon if you picked up a copy, and I would love to discuss the book’s many ideas—and people and tools and scenes and histories—in more detail here. However, I’m also aware that I can’t just post about this book over and over—and over—again, so I’ll also get back to regular blogging soon.

Thanks! And enjoy the book.