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Auroral awakening

How a Norwegian cracked the secret of the Northern Lights



Norway is a country that makes a virtue of economy. It has never been a place that suffers its prodigals gladly, and for a people saddled with a bony strip of Scandinavia lacking an abundance of natural resources for the taking, the Norwegians have contributed more than their proportional share to the glories of Western civilization. Like the paper clip, invented by Norwegian Johann Vaaler in 1901. And the cheese knife, which slices off one perfect strip of uniform thickness at a time. And the sock-trapper, a toothed ring of plastic that not only keeps socks from straying in the wash, but comes in a pack of ten color-coded trappers to put an end to family sock disputes.

Norwegians can also claim, with at least as much validity as any other European nation, to have discovered Greenland and North America. Norwegian explorers like Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen were among the first Europeans to explore the polar regions, in Amundsen’s case narrowly edging out Englishmen Robert Falcon Scott for top honors in the race to reach the South Pole first. In their free time, those busy Norwegians have also managed to come up with the explosive-tipped harpoon, the floating whaling station, the modern ski binding with iron lugs, the gas turbine, plastic ammunition and the Serpent sediment sluicing system for increasing the productivity of hydroelectric power systems. And you thought they were just lefse and lutefisk!

Interestingly, most of these innovations were contributed by Norwegians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in many ways a sort of Golden Age for Scandinavia, when Norway was the submissive partner in an unhappy union with neighboring Sweden.

For the Norwegian cognoscenti, along with the lure of fame and personal fortune for significant advances in the arts and sciences went the promise of accruing greater glory for Norway—and in doing so, it was fondly hoped, shoring up Norway’s case for autonomy by placing the tiny country on equal footing with the great European powers of the time.

Kristian Olaf Birkeland was a keenly intuitive scientist, a ceaseless toiler in service of his ideas, and a fervent Norwegian nationalist for whom the advancement of his country was more than a happy side effect of his own scientific and financial ambitions. When he set about the business of systematically deciphering the riddle of the Northern Lights, he was aware that the whole of turn-of-the-century academic Norway was watching him as he watched the skies.

Before Birkeland, the Northern Lights were a phenomenon that had baffled the best minds of Europe. Centuries of scientists and skalds had enriched the common body of folklore surrounding the eerily beautiful sheets of light with explanations of their own that were as colorful as they were scarcely credible: The lights were the reflection cast by shoals of herring in the North Sea, or by the beating wings of swans as they struggled to free themselves from winter ice.

The Lappish guides who helped transport and provision Birkeland’s first scientific expedition into the barren expanses of Finnmark in northern Norway regarded his undertaking as boastful and foolhardy. For them, the lights could be the spirits of the unhappily dead, and they could be vengeful.

From the outset, Birkeland was beset by financial obstacles to his research. Financing field observatories in the wilds of Finnmark, and later still less hospitable parts of northern Russia, was an expensive undertaking for an academic establishment that initially doubted the significance of his aurora research. Birkeland spent his own modest income as a university professor freely on instruments to make the measurements that, he was sure, would establish a scientific explanation for the aurora once and for all. Yet only the first third of Lucy Jago’s crisply written biography of Birkeland is bound up in his fascinating quest to vindicate the science behind the Lights. For much of the rest of the book, Birkeland is forced to find more practical applications for his scientific talents in order to bankroll his aurora obsession.

And they are equally fascinating. As Sweden and Norway prepare for a possible war with one another, Birkeland tries to make himself the unlikely prize in an international arms race after he serendipitously invents an electromagnetic cannon capable of hurling a projectile up to 60 miles. When the prototype misfires during its first public unveiling, the resulting fiasco only urges him on to an even more lucrative crackpot venture: using an electromagnetic furnace to produce nitric acid for making fertilizer, thereby easing the looming shortage of Chilean saltpeter that could threaten the world with starvation.

It’s great entertainment. The picture that emerges of Birkeland the tireless scientist compares rather more favorably to the one of Birkeland the man, for whom the pursuit of scientific proof comes before anything else—even his marriage, the end of which he fails to notice until he finds a note from his wife while blotting the ink from a vicious letter he is preparing to send to a treacherous business partner. She writes that she is leaving him and has gone to stay with a friend.

As is ideally the case with scientific biography, Jago could not have invented a more intriguing subject than the brilliantly unbalanced Birkeland. We are there for his setbacks and triumphs, and we get to know some of the notable Norwegian personalities of his time through their admiration, and in some instances antipathy, for him. An obscure corner of science history comes alive through Jago’s Birkeland, and the results are a pleasure.

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