Lighting upon the mystery of aurora borealis
Special to The Seattle Times
For young Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, the northern lights "marked the threshold between the visible and invisible worlds; they were the link between the planet and the vast, uncontrollable, and unseen forces that shaped the universe." So writes journalist and former BBC documentary filmmaker Lucy Jago in her fascinating and accomplished debut book, "The Northern Lights."
At the dawn of the 20th century, "the aurora was one of the last unsolved mysteries of the natural world," Jago writes. An early Norse poem proposed flames radiating from frost and glaciers as the cause, while others suggested "reflections from the silvery shoals of herring swimming close to the water's surface, or that they were the light bouncing off icebergs rocking in the polar sea; that they were created by sunlight reflecting off the wings of migrating geese, or off swans trapped in the polar ice flapping desperately to free themselves."
But the team not only survived, it also answered many basic questions, finding that, "The auroras did not touch the ground and therefore could not singe hair or burn flesh." Neither did they cause headaches nor crackle and hiss, as previously claimed.
Nevertheless, Birkeland's early results, published in 1901, said "magnetic disturbances were caused by electric currents in the atmosphere," and that these disturbances "came directly from the sun in narrow beams of electrically charged particles called cathode rays." Proposing sunspots as one cause for the Northern Lights was met with silence at best, ridicule at worst. The British, particularly the Royal Society's Lord Kelvin, attacked the book as "fundamentally flawed."
Birkeland, brilliant and ahead of his time but a sufferer of insomnia and depression, was an inept budgeteer, "a hopeless financial organizer." Norway was deep in an economic crash, so his proposal for four distantly located Arctic observatories to study the aurora independently found little support from his university or the Norwegian parliament.
Much of Jago's heartbreaking biography details Birkeland's numerous inventions, devised to fund his aurora research. Chief among these was an electrically powered furnace that extracted nitrogen, a necessary agricultural fertilizer, from air.
Jago manages to present her chemistry and physics with clarity as well as compassion, for as she demonstrates repeatedly, Birkeland's gifts lay in scientific genius, not personal interactions. His demanding business partner constantly schemed against him, his health failed as he grew increasingly dependent on whiskey and sleeping draughts, and "his fascination with the relationship between the sun and the Earth far outweighed interest in his own marriage." His work was met with indifference, overshadowed by other scientific revelations such as Einstein's theory of relativity.
Jago learned of Birkeland's life accidentally, while making a film about the sun for the BBC. "What gripped me," she stated in an interview, was that he "died without recognition, even as the Nobel committee was nominating him for a prize."
By 1913, Birkeland was so ill doctors prescribed a warm climate. Always intrigued by Egypt, he set off for Alexandria and Cairo, traveled up the Nile, then on to Sudan to study Zodiacal Light, a "subtle phenomenon (that) appeared about one hour after dusk above the western horizon and one hour before sunrise above the eastern horizon."
Until World War I, his work in Africa progressed well, and he had companions. Then, isolated and paranoid, he traveled to Japan en route to Norway. He died alone there in June 1917, whether by suicide or by accidental overdose is unknown.
Today, Jago notes, Birkeland is credited as the first "to propose an essentially correct explanation of the aurora borealis." Her poignant illumination of his difficult life and brilliant work bestows belated recognition.