Alanna Mitchell

Award-winning Canadian science journalist.

Sea Sick, the book, redux

November 4, 2019

photo credit: Adeline Heymann

My book Sea Sick, The Global Ocean in Crisis, came out a decade ago. This year, my editor at Canadian Geographic, Aaron Kylie, asked me to revisit the science. What has happened in 10 years? It led me on a journey, of course, as all valid investigations do. This one was to Antarctica on yet another ship. Here’s what I found out:

So, a super geeky podcast just went up about the possible reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field, created by the awesome Rose Eveleth of FastForwardPod. She interviewed me and a bunch of scientists. It’s incredibly fun and beautifully researched. Have a listen here:

Here’s some news hot off the press: Sea Sick, the play, is on the road again through parts of Ontario this fall. I’m so excited.

We start in Waterford on November 1 for five performances at the Old Town Hall. After that, it’s Picton’s Regent Theatre on November 9, then the Northern Lights Theatre in Haliburton on November 12 (thanks to the sponsors, Environment Haliburton and Abbey Gardens for all the work!), and then to the Registry Theatre in Kitchener on November 15.

A few other dates are in the works for this fall tour, so stay tuned!

Categories: Play

Cara Santa Maria has this super cool podcast called Talk Nerdy. She’s a science journalist like me and lives in the Los Angeles area. She’s won an Emmy and a Knight Foundation Award, plus, she works on all sorts of the most fascinating science shows on air: National Geographic’s Explorer and Netflix’s Bill Nye Saves the World,  as well as being cohost of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. She is a founding member of the Nerd Brigade and cofounded the annual science communication retreat #SciCommCamp. She interviewed me for today’s podcast and we chatted about all things magnetic. Settle in for a listen

This piece appeared in Quill and Quire, March 2018

About a year ago, while I was passionately immersed in getting the manuscript of my latest book, The Spinning Magnet: The Force That Created the Modern World and Could Destroy It, to my publisher, I found myself with a brief moment to surface and take the temperature of the times. It was shortly after the recent U.S. election and people were unironically talking about alternative facts and asserting that we are living in a post truth world. News was fake. Non-fiction was fiction. Facts, it seemed, could be custom-made. And science was dubious at best, bent at worst, and largely irrelevant in either case.

This came as a blow, since facts are my stock-in-trade. I write non-fiction books about science. I have been a journalist for the better part of three decades, again often writing about science. If you make a mistake in journalism, you have to print a correction and don a hair shirt for all the world to see.

My father was a biologist who taught science at the University of Regina. Scientific principles – you follow your curiosity, run careful experiments, find stuff out, and then run the experiments again – were bred in my bones. I remember sitting at the dining room table eating lunch with my father one hot summer day in my teens. I happened to wonder out loud why the fan ran clockwise instead of counterclockwise. My father leapt up from his sandwich and cried, “Let’s do an experiment to find out!”

So the post-truth trope started me thinking. The book I was writing is, on the surface, about electromagnetism, one of the four physical forces of the universe. I approached the subject as if I were, in the words of Stephen Morrow, my editor at Dutton, explaining for the first time what a whale was.

I am not a scientist, so I had been swotting pretty hard to figure out that approach. I had dipped my toe in quantum field theory – all those waves and particles with their weird ability to be both at the same time – and barked out a rueful laugh when I spotted a T-shirt that read, “I get science, but quantum field theory is just effin’ witchcraft.” As I tried to discern what physicists know about the magnetic shield that protects our planet from solar and galactic radiation, and what is happening in our planet’s tortured core that may prompt the magnetic poles to switch places, the whole thing started to seem like a muddle with no ultimate truth to it at all.

But that does a disservice to the physicists who are working so diligently to figure it out. They may not – yet – know everything about how the magnetic field functions, but they know a vast deal more than they knew a century ago. Or a decade ago. Or even just last year. They are making continuous, open-hearted attempts, based on what they already know for sure, to find out more. It’s painstaking and exceedingly careful work. These scientists are not swaggerers.

My book – and science itself – is really about the history of ideas and how humans have built  up our current body of knowledge, piece by piece over millennia, trying to work out how the universe is organized. It has been a grand game, complete with fits and starts and backtracks and outright mistakes and strokes of genius and absurdly poetic leaps of imagination to catch a glimpse of the rules that govern us all.

And those rules are not debatable. They are the truth. Gravity exists. So does the magnet with its north and south poles and the compass that tracks them. So do the two forces that function inside the nucleus of every atom to keep its little bits in the right places. That we know as much as we do about all this is astonishing. And that breathtaking scope of knowledge has led us not to a post-fact, post-truth, science-optional era but to an era that relies extraordinarily heavily on that very science, on those very truths.

As I write this, I am on an airplane flying to Sydney, Australia. Our long and honest history of scientific fact-finding feels pretty relevant to me right now: it is keeping me alive 35,000 feet above the ground. It is very much in play in our discourse about nuclear arms and the big buttons that can launch them. It is critical to oil and gas extraction and building luxury towers and even making golf courses green enough. It is certainly key to the technology that has given us Twitter.

We do not live in a post-truth world. We live in a world prone to propaganda. This is an ancient, dark art that has disfigured public discourse for as long as humans have been around. It is manipulative. It is deeply cynical. It is designed to untether us from our moral compasses, to sow doubt about whether it is possible to know anything at all. The great task of our age is to reach into our innermost selves, our best selves, quell the noise, and remember that we know right from wrong, truth from lies, just as our planet knows which way to spin.

Quill and Quire

Malignant Metaphor: Confronting Cancer Myths: A Memoir

The reaction to this book since it came out in the fall of 2015 has surprised me. I’ve had comments from people who have cancer as well as from those whose loved ones have died. They say they gave a big sigh of relief as they read it. It seems to give them permission to shed some of the guilt that cancer carries with it. That’s the best reaction I could have wished for. I think it means that the malignancy of the cancer metaphor is losing its grip. At least for some.

Not only that, but it’s gotten critical praise and it won the Lane Anderson Award for best science book written in Canada in 2015 for an adult audience. Such an honour!!

It began as a piece of research a few years ago to help my beloved brother-in-law, John, when he was diagnosed with untreatable melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. His doctors told him that he had only a 60 per cent chance of being alive five years after they diagnosed him. They had nothing to offer. In fact, they told him nothing he did would make a scrap of difference.

He asked me to be his cancer broker, I agreed.

I ran smack up against a raft of myths our society has created around cancer – how we get it, how much there is, what we can do to forestall it. I realized that we hold three impossible beliefs at the same time: cancer is inevitable, preventable and deserved.

So I set about parsing those beliefs, testing them to see if they’re true. Short story: They’re not. There’s actually less cancer now that there was a few decades ago; it’s more treatable and more survivable; and we know precious little more about how our own actions affect whether or not we get it. In fact, cancer is common, random and unlucky. But that’s not the story we tell about it.

Just as I was figuring all this out, my 21-year-old daughter, Calista, learned she had thyroid cancer. I spun out of control with grief and guilt, certain that I had done something wrong, that I had failed to forestall her disease.

The book is a chronicle of all that. It’s deeply personal. I wrote it in a great, ceaseless torrent while I was on a six-week writing grant from the Lannan Foundation in Marfa, Texas.

I came to believe that we must open a frank conversation about this malignant metaphor we’ve created, shine the light of information on it, hold some of the marketers of cancer breakthroughs to higher standards of truth when they try to prise more money out of our pockets.

I think it’s time to have a new conversation about what cancer really is instead of what we tell ourselves it is.


The Theatre Centre’s crack team of artists — Franco Boni, Aislinn Rose and Melissa Joakim — and I are headed to Australia to put Sea Sick on the stages of the Antipodes. And not just anywhere in Australia, but Darwin, the city of the northern coast, named after the gentleman naturalist who travelled around the world in the 1830s and gave us the theories of evolution and natural selection. My first book, Dancing at the Dead Sea, tracked Darwin’s adventures.

While I’m there, I’m taking a detour to Kakadu National Park, home to one of the largest stashes in the world of Indigenous rock art. It’s been a lifelong dream to go there.

So this is all feeling pretty exciting. Updates to come.

Whenever I give talks about Malignant Metaphor, people ask me how its two main characters are doing. My brother-in-law, John, was diagnosed in 2010 with melanoma. My daughter, Calista, in 2012.

The update: John’s cancer returned with a vengeance in late 2015. He developed a large melanoma tumor in his back, deeply embedded in his muscle. It was inoperable. But by then, researchers had come up new immunotherapy drugs to treat advanced melanoma and John launched into a medical trial of two of the drugs in early 2016. They had serious, near-lethal side effects. But he prevailed. Today, he’s healthy and there’s no sign that the cancer is returning.

Just this week, Calista got the results of a battery of tests designed to figure out how she was doing at five years after her diagnosis. When the endocrinologist at the hospital told her she is in remission, with no signs of disease, both my daughter and I cried. Calista said to me: “All I’ve wanted for five years is to be medically normal.” Now she is.

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