The Northern Lights

by Lucy Jago

London: Hamish Hamilton, 2001; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001

reviewed by Jonathan Dore


We are so familiar with the idea of the Aurora Borealis, and its southern counterpart the Aurora Australis, being a manifestation of the Sun’s electromagnetic influence on the Earth, that it is sometimes easy to imagine that this understanding is as old as Newton’s laws of motion, which described the Sun’s gravitational influence on our planet. In fact, experimental confirmation of the idea that charged particles from the Sun are energetic enough to reach the Earth has only come in the space age, from research satellites which detected the solar wind and established that the whole solar system is, in effect, bathed in the Sun’s outer atmosphere.

While many scientists had postulated a relationship between the Sun and the aurorae (due to the frequent coincidence of aurorae with sunspots), the first scientist to provide a comprehensive and substantially correct explanation of the mechanism by which this happened was the Norwegian physicist Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917), the subject of Lucy Jago’s book, The Northern Lights. Jago is an ex-TV documentary producer who came across Birkeland’s story while making the BBC series The Planets. From a publishing point of view the book fits nicely into the popular science biography genre whose immediate ancestor is Dava Sobel’s Longitude. While that was the story of "a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time", this is the story of "How one man sacrificed love, happiness and sanity to unlock the secrets of space" - but authors can’t be blamed for their publisher’s cheesy straplines.

That Birkeland’s story is a genuine discovery, however, is underlined (for this reader at least) by the constant sense of astonishment that a scientist and inventor of such obvious eminence and importance has escaped attention until now. The expedition Birkeland led to northern Norway in 1899-1900, to spend a winter observing the aurora continuously with a battery of equipment, led to the first consistent explanation of the phenomenon - that beams of electrons (the particles had been discovered only two years previously by J.J. Thomson), emanating from the Sun, were drawn along the lines of the Earth’s magnetic field towards its poles, creating an aurora in the Earth’s ionosphere, at about 100 km above ground level, in a ring around the magnetic poles. This was followed by an even more ambitious expedition in 1902-03 in which observations from four stations - in northern Norway, Svalbard, western Iceland, and Novaya Zemlya - were coordinated, and compared with magnetic observations taken from cooperating observatories at lower latitudes around the world. Birkeland’s two-volume report on this second expedition, which he published over the following ten years, refined and reinforced his theory, the greater wealth of data from different locations allowing him to reconstruct the aurora’s appearance and behaviour in three dimensions within the overall picture of the Earth’s magnetosphere.

In continental Europe Birkeland was reckoned to have made an immense breakthrough and was considered a figure of international importance; in Britain, sadly, the Royal Society’s tribal allegiance to Lord Kelvin’s view that magnetic energy from the Sun could not possibly produce influences at the distance of the Earth - a view seemingly upheld through several generations of the Society’s leaders - meant that Birkeland was dismissed as a crank by one of the most influential groups of physicists in the world at that time. In the absence of the decisive direct observations of solar wind that spacecraft alone could provide, the argument was deadlocked until the 1960s, by which time Birkeland’s name and accomplishments had largely disappeared from view in the English-speaking world.

Birkeland’s other major claim to fame was his invention of a workable electric furnace for the conversion of nitrogen from the atmosphere into a solid form that could be used as agricultural fertilizer, thus averting what many saw as an impending global catastrophe as the world’s stock of fixed nitrogen - mainly from mines in Chile - began to run out. Working flat out for two years to steal a march on an alternative German process, he used his profound understanding of the properties of electricity to produce a workable furnace in which a series of huge electrical arcs, jumping between two points, were deflected by electromagnets into a semicircle, thus passing through as much air as possible (the resulting nitrogen oxide was mixed with water to produce nitric acid, and the acid with limestone to produce calcium nitrate, a stable solid that could be used as a fertilizer). Although it gave him financial independence for the rest of his life, the credit for this breakthrough, too, has been largely denied him, as his business partner Sam Eyde, whose main role was organizing the financing of the company, took every opportunity to present himself as the inventor of the process - a task that was made easier by Birkeland’s absence from Norway for the last four years of his life, and his early death, almost certainly from an accidental overdose of a sleeping draught, in a Japanese hotel room in 1917.

It was Birkeland’s last major project - an attempt to produce a full explanation for the zodiacal light - that led to his absence from his homeland, as he took up residence in Egypt and Sudan, from which latitudes the phenomenon could be better observed. His obsessive determination in pursuit of his research is captured in his letter to the British assistant governor of Khartoum asking that all the streetlights of Omdurman be turned off so that he could make his observations free of light pollution (the request was granted). This obsession left little room for a personal life, as the sad description of his few years of marriage to Ida Hammer, daughter of a country minister, demonstrates. The temperature of their relationship barely seems to have risen above luke-warm on either side even at its best, and Jago does not succeed in shedding much light on the inner contours of their emotional life, so their decision to marry, and Ida’s decision to leave her husband, seem equally arbitrary. Why Birkeland chose to court Ida rather than one of a number of other women in his circle whose education and interests would have allowed them to engage with him on a scientific level, is a question in which Jago seems strangely uninterested.

There are other respects in which the book has disappointments. In her Author’s Note Jago says she wanted to "prevent" the book becoming a "standard biography", yet doesn’t say what we should regard it as instead. The narrative begins with the 1899 expedition, and surprisingly few passages in the book even allude to his life before this. Birkeland’s year of birth (1867) is nowhere mentioned (it can only be inferred from a couple of references to his birthday); his childhood is skated over with the thinnest of detail, and his student days and the years when he was establishing his reputation as a young physicist and deciding on the direction of his interests scarcely do any better. If Wordsworth knew that "the child is father of the man", it’s a shame when a biographer doesn’t. It would have made the book longer, certainly, but would have thrown light on and enriched the texture of what follows. There are a few editing errors - the diacritics in Scandinavian names are sometimes a bit approximate - and towards the end, quite a few confusing factual inconsistencies (perhaps stemming from the author’s decision to "telescope events to prevent the story becoming too long"). Sadly this telescoping means that it is sometimes simply impossible to work out a sequence of events. Birkeland is said to have sent a telegram on the date on which, later, he is said to have been found dead first thing in the morning. One of his friends was unable to attend his memorial service because of illness, then later is said to have died the previous year. Authors make such mistakes all the time, but it’s part of the publisher’s job to see that the mistakes don’t get into print: there’s really not much excuse for getting this sort of basic stuff wrong.

These glitches aside, The Northern Lights is fast-paced and enjoyable with wide potential appeal. It would make a good Christmas read not only for scientists or those interested in the Arctic, but for anyone who enjoys a story of brilliant insight and solid achievement, and the pleasure of seeing (one must hope) the rebirth of a great scientist’s reputation.