Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Northern Lights

Someday I'd really like to see the northern lights. When we lived in upstate New York I kept hoping they would show in the sky, but they didn't.

In her book, The Northern Lights, Lucy Jago writes about the Norwegian scientist and inventor Kristian Birkeland. Jago concentrates on Birkeland's adult years, and the role he played in discovering what causes the northern lights phenomenon. She opens her narrative with his first expedition to a crude observatory on Haldde Mountain, in Finnmark, Norway, where he and several assistants spent the fall and winter of 1899-1900 observing the aurora borealis. The men endured horrible conditions to gather scientific data from the few instruments available to them at that time.

Birkeland continued his observations and experiments for the next fifteen years, always fighting for funds, and several times using knowledge he'd gained in his studies of the northern lights to make inventions used in other ways. (He was the primary scientist to figure out how to produce nitrogen for fertilizer using a furnace, and he had plans for an electromagnetic cannon to be used in war.) He appears to have been gifted with an extraordinarily active mind - always working and pondering and even when not purposely thinking about what he was studying, having solutions to other scientific problems jump into his head.

Birkeland also studied the Zodiacal Light (which I'd never heard of until I read this book), and spent several years in Egypt and the Sudan observing this particular light. He did not have very good health, and his poor eating and sleeping habits, combined in later years with alcohol and veronal use (for sleeping), made his health and mental acuity decline quite rapidly in the years of World War I. He died of an accidental overdose of veronal in 1919 - not yet 52 years old.

In the epilogue, Jago neatly brings Birkeland's discoveries forward in time to show the reader the significance of this man's work, and how many of his ideas and theories were proven true decades after his death.



Blogger Chris said...

Sounds like an interesting book.

Don't feel bad not seeing the Lights. I live in Atlantic Canada and have only seen them once. The sky turned a neon green, even through the town lights it could be seen. This was over 15 yrs ago and I've waited and waited ever since to see them again. I keep hoping.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Melanie said...

Thanks for reminding me of this book. I've meant to read it for ages; he sounds like a fascinating person. I grew up fairly northerly, in Saskatchewan, and the lights were seen often. I recall once being at a drive-in & the movie was sooo bad everyone got out of their cars and watched the Northern Lights instead!

9:57 PM  

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