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  • Written by Lucy Jago
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  • The Northern Lights
  • Written by Lucy Jago
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Written by Lucy JagoAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lucy Jago


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42909-4
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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  Science, biography, and arctic exploration coverage in this extraordinary true story of the life and work of Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, the troubled genius who solved the mysteries of one of nature’s most spectacular displays.  
   Captivated by the otherworldly lights of the aurora borealis, Birkeland embarked on a lifelong quest to discover their cause.  His pursuit took him to some of the most forbidding landscapes on earth, from the remote snowcapped mountains of Norway to the war-torn deserts of Africa.  In the face of rebuke by the scientific establishment, sabotage by a jealous rival, and his own battles with depression and paranoia, Birkeland remained steadfast.  Although ultimately vindicated, his theories were unheralded—and his hopes for the Nobel Prize scuttled—at the time of his suspicious death in 1917.
   The Northern Lights offers a brilliant account of the physics behind the aurora borealis and a rare look inside the mind of one of history's most visionary scientists.


from Chapter 1

Odin's Messengers
14 October 1899
Finnmark, Northern Norway, within the Arctic Circle

It is true of the northern lights, as of many other things of which we have no sure knowledge, that thoughtful men will form opinions and conjectures about it and will make such guesses as seem reasonable. But these northern lights have this peculiar nature, that the darker the night is, the brighter they seem, and they always appear at night but never by day, and rarely by moonlight. They resemble a vast flame of fire viewed from a great distance. It also looks as if sharp points were shot from this flame up into the sky, they are of uneven height and in constant motion, now one, now another darting highest; and the light appears to blaze like a living flame . . .
---kongespeilet (The King's Mirror), c. 1220-30, Norse epic

It was ten in the morning and -25° Celsius when the group left the small mining town of Kaafjord for the summit of Haldde Mountain, Haldde being a Lappish word for "guardian spirit." The cold should have scattered the clouds but halfway to the top the wind engulfed the men in blinding eddies of snow and ice. Their guide, Clement Isaakson Hætta, was a Lapp who had abandoned the traditional activity of herding reindeer to become the local postman serving the few Norwegians, Swedes, and immigrant workers from Finland, the Kvens, living in this northerly outpost. Short, with bandy legs, he bent his body at the hips into a right angle and pushed on through the storm like a swaying battering ram. Firmly wrapped around his wrist were the leather reins of the leading reindeer that was struggling to pull a sled piled high with a bizarre cargo of instrument boxes, trunks, and tripods. Seven reindeer, similarly yoked, were lashed behind the leader, and roped to them were five huddled figures.

Directly behind Hætta was the instigator of the expedition, Kristian Olaf Birkeland. He yelled to the guide above the screeching wind wanting to know whether it was safe to continue. He could not hear the response, as the storm scrambled Hætta's words and Birkeland was partly deaf from conducting noisy radio-wave experiments as a student. Festooned with reindeer skins, he appeared shorter than his five feet five inches. Only thirty-one years old, he was already balding across the dome of his fine-boned scalp. The snow stuck to his round spectacles but he had long given up scraping ice off the lenses and instead squinted between the rims and his fur hood. This unlikely adventurer had been made a professor of Norway's only university one year previously. He was the youngest of his colleagues in the Faculty of Science and Mathematics, his prophetic genius as a scientist emerging in his twenties when he solved problems that had defeated some of the brightest minds in Europe. Despite his youth, Birkeland was not a fit man; he loathed physical hardship and was more accustomed to long hours in the laboratory, hunched over diagrams and experiments. It was a comment on his devotion to scientific discovery that he was stranded on a mountain in eighty-kilometer-an-hour winds that howled continuously.

The storm was worsening; the men had been walking for six hours and had covered a distance that would take only two in good conditions. The guide shuffled onward, chewing on black tobacco, damp wads of which he spat into the wind. To reach the summit of the mountain, and the hut that would provide them with shelter, it was necessary to leave the narrow plateau they were traversing and climb the exposed mountainside. The peak they were heading toward was engulfed in a mass of swirling snow and ice as dense as black smoke.

Roped behind a breathless Birkeland came Bjorn Helland-Hansen, a gifted student in the medical department of Christiania University who was training to be a surgeon. Talented in science as well as medicine, he had attended Birkeland's lecture course and been inspired to join him on this adventure. He had just celebrated his twenty-second birthday. Tied to him was Elisar Boye, a Latin scholar who had been the first to volunteer for the expedition, presenting himself just a few hours after Birkeland posted a notice on the boards in the main hall of the university, requesting strong and able science students for a unique expedition to the Arctic Circle. At first Birkeland had thought that a Latin graduate would be of little use to him on a scientific mission, but Boye explained that he had achieved the best mark possible in mathematics, and eventually Birkeland relented in the face of the young man's enthusiasm. Boye looked much younger than his twenty-two years, with a smooth, pale complexion and clear blue eyes, on this day hidden inside his reindeer hood. He had stopped trying to see where he was going through the lashing snow and simply followed the direction of the tugging rope. Behind Boye came Kristoffer Knudsen, a twenty-three-year-old telegraphic engineer who had been working for the Norwegian railway until Birkeland lured him away with promises of adventure and pioneering science. He did not know the other members of the group and was the quietest when they began the ascent. As the storm intensified, he retreated ever further into his jacket and squinted at the ground immediately before his feet through the hairs of his hood. The tallest in the party, Sem Sæland, brought up the rear. Just turned twenty-five, Sæland had studied mathematics, astronomy, physics, and chemistry at the university, then traveled to Iceland, where he spent a year teaching before returning to Christiania University for further studies. There he met Birkeland, and was so interested in the professor's ideas that he had volunteered to join him on his expedition. Sæland repeatedly checked the knot in the rope linking him to the others as the driving snow was so thick he could see no more than a few centimeters beyond his nose.

By four o'clock the light was fading. Hætta decided that they should turn round and head back down the mountain, but then immediately changed his mind, suggesting they continue to the hut as it could not be more than two kilometers away and it would be more difficult to go down than up. He cajoled and harried the reindeer, which would not face the wind and nervously shook their heads at the sharp points of ice pricking their eyes and noses. It was impossible to sit in the sleds as they lay so close to the ground that the men were pelted with ice and small stones. Soon some of the reindeer lay down flat and refused to move. Hætta, a large part of his face white with frostbite, followed their lead and threw himself onto his sled, declaring he could go no further and could not find the way forward. He told Birkeland to continue without him, keeping the wind in his face, but the professor knew that abandoning their guide would be a fatal mistake and told the group to make camp as best they could. Hætta crawled under his sled while the others dragged the remaining sleds and baggage to form a barricade, behind which they erected a low tent. They struggled into their reindeer sleeping bags with all possible haste while Helland-Hansen weighed down the guy ropes with boxes and trunks. By the time he entered the tent less than five minutes later, the tips of his fingers had turned white with frostbite.

For twenty hours the five men lay in the cramped tent. They rubbed Helland-Hansen's fingers every quarter of an hour in an attempt to bring them back to life, and almost as regularly one of the five men had to push snow from the roof of the tent to prevent the suffocation of all those inside. Wherever there was a little shelter the snow heaped into thick, compact drifts that would trap them in a freezing vise if allowed to settle. They had nothing to drink or warm themselves with, having been assured by Hætta that the ascent was a matter of six hours' gentle climbing with a short, steep section at the summit. Birkeland had half a loaf of bread in his jacket that he tossed to Hansen in the darkness, hoping some food might distract him from the pain in his hands, but the noise of the wind was so great that he did not hear Birkeland yelling to him to eat the bread, and it froze to the consistency of rock within a few minutes. Gradually the little light that glowed through the snow-filled air was extinguished by the black night that fell by five o'clock. Inside the tent Birkeland was painfully aware that only a thin strip of canvas trembled between them and the lethal storm outside; one fierce gust and it could be ripped off. Without the tent they would be unlikely to survive.

The men lay shivering in their sleeping bags, dozing fitfully through the night but being frequently awoken by particularly violent blasts of wind and ice or by hunger and thirst. They had put a bucket of snow inside the tent in the hope that it would melt with their body heat and they would have water to drink, but it remained frozen. Birkeland felt responsible for the safety of his talented charges who had followed him on this hazardous expedition. Aware that this area sometimes experienced week-long tempests of unbroken ferocity, he worried throughout the night about how they could survive if the storm continued the next day. Lying awake listening to the air howling through the mountain pass and over their tent, he waited for the slightest sign that the gale-force winds were easing.

At ten the following morning Birkeland untied one of the leather strings holding down the tent flap but could see no more than a meter ahead. Not until midday did the wind abate sufficiently to risk venturing out. Birkeland banged on Hætta's sled to make sure the postman was still alive. Hætta shouted in reply that he was too cold to move but Birkeland insisted that they take advantage of the lull. Camp was struck, the sleds reloaded, and a reluctant Hætta once again led the group onward. They had only a few hours of daylight left to make the ascent, and without food and water it was imperative they find the shelter.

As the six men trudged on, the snow finally stopped and only tiny ice crystals spun in the eddies of wind left behind by the fierce zephyrs now en route to central Finnmark, Kautokeino, and the Lapp reindeer camps of the plains. The clouds dispersed as quickly as they had arrived, and in the gathering twilight the Pole Star appeared, reassuring and constant. Without the cloud cover the cold intensified rapidly, and moisture frosted on their lips, while their breath trailed behind them in crystal plumes. The drifting snow made walking in boots impossible, so the men strapped small skis to their feet. The undersurface of the skis was covered in reindeer skin in such a way that gliding forward was easy but the hairs sticking in the snow prevented them from slipping backwards. Nearly two hours later they reached a gently sloping plateau at the foot of the summit. Hætta pointed to the top of the peak. In the deepening twilight the group could faintly discern the shape of a small building. The sky was almost dark and the final slope was littered with sharp, icy rocks and narrow crevices. The reindeer coughed and snorted with the effort of pulling the heavy sleds up the incline and the group stopped frequently to allow them to rest. At the steepest sections, the men put their weight behind the sleds and pushed with all their failing strength as the delicate-limbed reindeer slipped and scrabbled on the icy rocks and patchy snow. After twenty minutes of backbreaking struggle the exhausted group arrived at a small area of smooth snow, a ledge of flat ground at the base of the final peak. Above them stood their sanctuary, a black shape against an inky sky.

In the dark the men could discern a small stone building with wooden steps leading up to the doorway in a low tower. After struggling to crack away the ice that had sealed the door to the jamb, Birkeland managed to get inside. It was nearly seven o'clock by the time the stove was lit and a bucket of snow brought in to thaw. Hansen immersed his hands in it in the hope that the frostbite could still be reversed. The others unpacked the sleds and staggered up the slope with the boxes and bags.

As the last of the packages were carried in and Hætta tethered the reindeer, a crack appeared in the night. On the eastern horizon the darkness was splitting to reveal a gentle, tremulous luminescence-just a sliver, a streak. One by one the men stood still on the summit and stared at the vision appearing before them. The streamer of light began to move toward them in a huge arc across the heavens, pulsating and writhing as it advanced. The streak became a pennant with points of light coursing down in parallel lines like the strings of a harp, attached at one end to heaven and at the other to the sinuous curve of light as it crept from horizon to horizon. Then another bolt of the green-white light stretched out beside the first and both arced together. Even more wildly the strings were plucked and the shapes changed to the music-now curling, now forming great circles, then breaking again to roll away to join another arc of green-white light. No one spoke. The hairs on the backs of their necks stood up, as if awoken by static electricity. Birkeland understood for the first time why the Lights had defied neat explanation: they appeared not to belong to Earth but to space. Seemingly beyond human comprehension, they reached straight into the souls of those who witnessed them as an appearance of the angelic host or the Holy Spirit might do. The glowing banners in the sky were so entrancing that the group forgot the cold and remained outside, entering the hut occasionally to eat or drink but re-emerging to watch the breathtaking display dancing over their heads. Only HÆtta did not look. He took the reins and bells off his animals and went into the hut without an upward glance.

For the Lapps, the Northern Lights were a fierce and powerful presence. They were the messengers of God, to be respected and feared. HÆtta had removed the harnesses from the reindeer to avoid attracting their attention, for Lapps believed that whistling, waving handkerchiefs, or the sound of tinkling bells would provoke the Lights into attacking the offender. Stories abounded of Lapps who ignored this warning being struck down, their charred reindeer jackets remaining as a warning to others. The Lapps would chant a special rhyme repeatedly if they feared that they had angered the Lights:

The northern light, the northern light

Flickering, flickering,

Hammer in its leg

Birch bark in its hand.

From the Hardcover edition.
Lucy Jago|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Lucy Jago

Lucy Jago - The Northern Lights
Lucy Jago is a former documentary producer for Channel 4 and the BBC. She has been awarded two academic scholarships and a Double First Class Honours Degree from King's College, University of Cambridge, and a master's degree from the Courtauld Institute, London. She lives in Dorset, England.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Lucy Jago, author of The Northern Lights

Q: When did you first learn about the Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, and what drew you to write a book about his life and discoveries?
While making a film about the sun for a BBC Science series called “The Planets,” I looked for ways to illustrate the influences our star has on the earth besides providing heat and light. The aurora are the most dramatic, mysterious phenomena caused by the sun so I contacted scientists at the Auroral Observatory in Tromsø for advice on when and how to film them. They provided me with the information I needed, and told me about an amazing machine they had just restored which could recreate the aurora in miniature. The man who had invented this machine, around 1905, was Kristian Birkeland. When I heard more about this fascinating, brilliant, but tragic figure, I was hooked and began to research more deeply into his life. I traveled to Norway during holidays to spend time in archives and up on mountains.
In the winter of 1899/1900, in the most northerly part of Norway, well into the Arctic Circle, Birkeland built an observatory to watch the aurora. I was lucky enough to arrive on the only day they had ever allowed "skidoos" up Haldde mountain and so I hitched a ride to the top where the little stone observatory perches. It was incredible to stand on top of that peak and think that Birkeland had spent a winter (often braving atrocious weather conditions) with this breath-taking view stretching north to the Arctic Sea and south to the mountain plateau that is the winter home of the Sabme (Lapp) reindeer herders. That night the temperature was minus 20 degrees but the air was completely still. I stood and watched the most brilliant display of aurora I had ever seen, shooting over the mountain tops in the east like lava from a volcano, writhing overhead to the opposite horizon, snaking into crowns and shooting towards the ground like harpoons of light. I could quite see why, previous to Birkeland's scientific explanation for the phenomenon, people assumed the aurora were the Valkyries riding out of Valhalla to point out which soldiers would die in battle, or that they were portents of war and disaster or messengers from the spirit world. No rational or scientific explanation could be exciting enough to equal the beauty of the Northern Lights. That night I understood for the first time why Birkeland became so obsessed in his quest to unravel the mystery of the aurora.

Q: Can you briefly explain the scientific “hunch” that led Kristian Birkeland through years of tracking the aurora borealis?
Birkeland was convinced that the aurora were created by charged particles streaming from the sun, drawn towards the poles of the earth by the magnetic field surrounding the planet and creating the lights as they collided with atoms in the earth's atmosphere, about 100 kilometers above the surface of the planet. Although he spent winters in Arctic conditions to gather evidence to prove his theory, created complicated mathematical models to support his field work and even built a machine in which to recreate the lights in his laboratory, few scientists of his day believed Birkeland. His ideas were too far ahead of their time to gain acceptance; he was not proven right until the late sixties, when satellites could provide data to back Birkeland's theories.

Q: In an early attempt to fund his Northern Lights research, Birkeland invested much time and energy in experiments for the hydroelectric industry. What were some of his successes and failures in this area?
His success was in developing switching mechanisms that allowed engineers to easily start and stop the electric currents created by the generators. His failure was that he nearly destroyed an entire hydroelectric facility in the process! While doing experiments for his switches he noticed that a strong electromagnetic field can attract or repel metal objects near it. While most engineers had ignored this strange effect, Birkeland, with his intuitive understanding of the forces at play, used the information to create an “electromagnetic cannon” that he eventually developed into an electrically powered torpedo for warships.

Q: How and why did Birkeland end up building an electromagnetic furnace?
During an important demonstration of his cannon, at which were gathered the great and the good of Christiania (Oslo) society, along with some of Europe's major weapons manufacturers, his invention dramatically backfired, spewing flames and arcs of electricity towards the audience, accompanied by a tremendous bang. The ensuing panic diverted the audience from the fact that the missile had successfully hit its target. Shares in Birkeland's cannon company slumped dramatically. But, rather than become despondent, Birkeland used the lessons learned from the cannon's faults to create another invention from similar technology—an electromagnetic furnace. His design was the first economically viable method to harness atmospheric nitrogen and thus manufacture fertilizer. This was a huge achievement that helped all of Europe avoid a severe agricultural crisis.

Q: The Nobel Committee wanted to nominate Kristian Birkeland for the prize, in recognition of the furnace he invented rather than the auroral theory he devised. What factors thwarted his nomination?
The “factor” was Sam Eyde, Birkeland's business partner in the fertilizer company. Eyde had found the money to fund Birkeland's development of the prototype furnace into a design economically viable for large-scale manufacture. It would seem that Eyde, with his excellent contacts in Sweden (where the Nobel Committee sits) managed to scupper plans to nominate Birkeland alone for the prize. Eyde wanted to be included in the nomination, but the prize is designed to recognize the original idea, not its commercial application. At the time, relations between Sweden and Norway were also very delicate and the committee appears to have been reluctant to nominate Birkeland if his nomination could have become contentious.

Q: It might surprise some readers to learn that a scientist pursuing an explanation of the Northern Lights spent years conducting research in equatorial Africa. What did Birkeland hope to gain from his studies in Africa?
Birkeland traveled to Egypt and Sudan to study the Zodiacal Light—a subtle light effect seen in night skies created by sunlight scattered off small particles orbiting the sun. The Zodiacal Light is more easily seen at locations near to the equator and Birkeland hoped his research in Africa might provide the proof he needed for his auroral theories.

Q: Referring to World War I, you write: “The declaration of war was the start of [Birkeland's] own, inexorable slide into tragedy.” How so?
War meant that Birkeland's assistants had to return to Norway, leaving him to continue his research alone. It seems that Birkeland had fallen in love in Egypt with a Greek pianist called Hella, who also returned to Europe—leaving Birkeland lonely and isolated. Never a man skilled at self-preservation, Birkeland began to drink too much whiskey, take large doses of Veronal (a highly addictive and damaging barbiturate prescribed for insomnia) and slide into a twilight of excessive work, paranoia and illness—with no one to stop him. The war also distracted scientific attention away from Birkeland's work and his achievements. His scientific legacy was forgotten or refuted before it could be built upon. Birkeland's last treatise was lost at sea when the shop carrying his effects from Japan to Norway sank. His published work was largely ignored for fifty years after his death. But many of his ideas, considered crazy at the time, were later accepted—in particular the existence of field-aligned currents created by charged particles streaming from the sun, now called Birkeland Currents.

Q: Do you think Birkeland was a genius?
I have a rather pragmatic view of what “genius” is—Isaac Newton, when questioned as to how he would arrive at an extraordinary discovery, replied “by thinking constantly upon it.” It would appear that a great number of people we call geniuses have a better than average grasp of their subject, combined with total dedication to their quest. Few people would sacrifice their health, marriage, every moment of potentially free time—even their sleep—to a single end. But this is just what Birkeland did. In the course of his life he formed theories of such prophetic brilliance that I do think he could be called a genius.
I often wonder how lonely and frustrated Birkeland must have been, met repeatedly with misunderstanding or incomprehension. As he once said, “A very few lonely pioneers make their way to high places never before visited . . . they create the living conditions of mankind and the majority are living on their work.”

Q: Would you have liked him?
I think I would have loved to be in Birkeland's company—for short periods! He appears to have been extremely intense, always challenging convention in his social and work life. He would surely have been an excellent conversationalist. He thought deeply beyond his subject about philosophical questions, such as the existence of God and of genius. But he also loved to play practical jokes on his students and to buy large sacks of confetti which he would strew about liberally, with the slightest excuse. I think he would have been a good person to know if you needed some difficult point explained—he wasn’t patronizing, and was impatient only if you appeared not to be trying hard enough to understand what he was saying. But I wouldn’t have wanted to be romantically involved with him: any man able to arrange a lecture on his wedding day is not what I’d call a good prospect!

Author Q&A

The Aurora Borealis has had its many devotees through history, Kristian Birkeland being one of the most passionate--but there are modern-day chroniclers of the phenomenon all around the northern regions of the Earth. These intrepid enthusiasts diligently capture the Auroras on film. Several of these photographers have websites dedicated to their work and have agreed to share some of their images here on Lucy Jago's desktop.



"As gripping as a Conan Doyle adventure." –Harper's Magazine

"Fascinating... evokes the manic, punishing era of polar exploration."– The New York Times Book Review

"A fascinating nugget of history... Jago charts her course unerringly."–Chicago Tribune

"Jago deftly paints a historical background for some of the most important concepts in electromagnetic theory today, breathing life into [her] subject."–Scientific American

"Thrilling... if you like a Faustian fable, war, and weird science, then this is for you."-Conde Nast Traveler

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