The awe-inspiring aurora borealis was, appropriately, first explained by a Norwegian scientist, whose story Jago sets forth.
Jago, a London-based TV journalist, begins by showing Kristian Birkeland (1868–1917) on his first Arctic expedition, in 1899, to Finnmark in the far north of Norway. At 31, Birkeland had shown unusual aptitude at science and only a year before had become a professor of physics at Norway’s only university. More accustomed to the laboratory than to the demanding Arctic weather he and his assistants were about to face, Birkeland had a theory that the aurora was caused by solar particles entering Earth’s magnetic field. After an incredibly harsh winter featuring high winds that nearly destroyed the scientists’ rude shelter and an avalanche that killed one of his assistants, Birkeland had his data. But time to analyze and publish the results was hard to come by, and the expedition had already wildly exceeded its budget. To free himself from the demands of teaching, Birkeland began to search for some patentable process to provide cash that would support full-time research. After several time-consuming projects, he perfected a method for extracting atmospheric nitrogen, in demand as the basis for synthetic fertilizers. Meanwhile, his explanation of the aurora (bolstered by some fascinating laboratory work) fell flat because he still could not explain how solar particles reached Earth. Nationalist rivalries in the pre–WWI era further undermined Birkeland’s ability to make his mark: A staunch Norwegian patriot, he faced condescension from the then-dominant German and British scientific establishments. His frustrating final days were spent in exile in Egypt, then in Japan, where he died, his theories still rejected—although they are now considered proven.
A fascinating picture of a scientist whose distinguished career deserves to be better known.