The Northern Lights: The True Story of the Man Who Unlocked the Secrets of the Aurora Borealis by Lucy Jago. Alfred A. Knopf, $24, 297 pages.
The Chapel Hill News
April 28, 2002
Honoring an Overlooked Scientist
By Phillip Manning
"It's easy to recognize pioneers," a venture capitalist once told me, "they have arrows in their backs." In fact, pioneers in high-tech businesses often don't get their due. Followers routinely reap the rewards of the original inventor's sweat and imagination. In scientific research, though, I thought accomplishment might be rewarded more fairly. Silly me; the awarding of prizes for research is an intensely political process, and groundbreaking scientists sometimes fare no better than pioneers in business.
In the "The Northern Lights" (Knopf, $24), Lucy
Jago tells the sad story of Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917), the
Norwegian physicist who devoted his life to discovering the source
of the northern lights. The lights, of course, are mysterious
streamers of red and green fireworks that sometimes fill the polar
skies. As a youth, Birkeland learned that the Earth was a magnet
and that auroras are usually seen near the poles, where the lines
of magnetic force are concentrated. He also learned that the
lights appeared when that magnetic field was disturbed. Birkeland
wanted to know what disturbed it.
He trained as a physicist, specializing in electricity and magnetism, and published his first scientific paper when he was 18. At age 31, he was a respected professor at the university in his hometown of Oslo. A year after his appointment, Birkeland was slogging up a mountain north of the Arctic Circle. Accompanying him were four assistants and a sled full of scientific equipment pulled by reindeer. During that long, dark winter, punctuated only by spectacular auroras, Birkeland worked like a frenzied man, often poring over data from his instruments for 36 hours without sleep. When spring arrived, Birkeland had a good idea about the source of the northern lights.
The Norwegian government had financed the expedition, but Birkeland was a inept accountant, losing receipts and generally making an administrative mess. As a consequence, Norway was reluctant to fund further research. Birkeland (like most scientists) hated chasing grants, so he decided to circumvent the need for them. He decided to get rich.
At a dinner party, he met Sam Eyde, an engineer with political skills, big ambitions, and a streak of vindictive deceitfulness that would torpedo Birkeland's chances to be recognized for his achievements. Eyde had bought several waterfalls in Norway to furnish cheap power to make fertilizer. The concept was simple: build an electric-arc furnace that would combine the nitrogen and oxygen in air to produce nitrogen dioxide, which would then be dissolved in water and passed over limestone to make calcium nitrate, a common fertilizer. All Eyde needed was a partner who could make the furnace, and because Birkeland had that expertise, they joined forces.
Working night and day for almost six months, Birkeland designed and built the furnace, using his knowledge of electromagnets to create a fiery, circular spark so powerful that would oxidize nitrogen. When the prototype furnace finally performed properly, the exhausted Birkeland shouted to his assistant, "Good! Now we are getting rich."
He was right. The process for making fertilizer led to a large, profitable company. Soon, Birkeland and Eyde were both rich. Furthermore, the Nobel Committee wanted to nominate Birkeland for the prize in chemistry. Eyde, however, was jealous and used his political contacts to sabotage the nomination. The long hours and intense work had taken its toll on Birkeland. He began taking veronal, a common but addictive sedative, for his insomnia and depression, which he washed down with rivers of whiskey. Finally, though, he had the money to pursue his dream of finding the source of the northern lights.
From his work in the Arctic and with a lab now equipped with sophisticated equipment, Birkeland was able to pinpoint the source of the magnetic disruptions that produced the polar fireworks. The northern lights, he concluded, were caused by charged particles emitted by the sun, usually associated with sunspots and solar flares. However, Birkeland's papers on the subject were ignored; most scientists believed that space was empty. The idea of a "solar wind" seemed farfetched.
The lack of recognition further depressed Birkeland. He increased
his doses of veronal and whiskey, and his health continued to
deteriorate. He became paranoid, took even more veronal, and
finally died at age fifty, with pistol on his bed table and veronal
in his glass. At the time of his death, the Nobel Committee was
again considering nominating Birkeland, this time for his work
on the aurora borealis. However, the prize is never awarded posthumously,
so Birkeland was robbed again of the accolades he deserved. Today,
Birkeland's theories that the northern lights are caused by charged
particles coming from the sun that interact with the Earth's atmosphere
is considered essentially correct. And Norway recently honored
this scientific pioneer by putting his face in a place normally
reserved for royalty -- on the country's 200 kroner note.