Fire in the sky

Unlocking the secrets of the northern lights

Dec 19, 2001 at 12:00 am

Famed zoologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould has been railing of late over historical biographers shoehorning their subjects' lives into prefabricated narratives. As he wrote not long ago in The New York Review of Books, such authors too often "misdirect history into channels of our evolved mental preferences." Readers of science biographies know these reader-friendly contrivances all too well: So-and-so worked doggedly for years, thwarting all obstacles and fools, single-mindedly pursuing that great discovery that only he or she knew awaited. The approach leaves little room for what is frequently the true story: the quirky confluence of factors that come together to advance science.

Lucy Jago, a former documentary producer for the British Broadcasting Corp., avoids such a narrative template nearly to a fault in her first book, The Northern Lights, a biography of the obscure but visionary Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland. In the beginning decades of the 20th century, Birkeland was the first to explain accurately the phenomenon of the aurora borealis, the multihued streams of light that wash over the night sky in the upper reaches of the Northern Hemisphere. As Jago writes, the northern lights (and their equatorial counterparts, the zodiacal lights) have been long the stuff of mythology: "The frightening sight of the sky ablaze with pulsating flames led commentators to believe they predicted war, plagues, and conflagration."

Through harrowing observational expeditions inside the Arctic Circle and painstaking analysis, Birkeland determined that the lights were caused by radiant emissions from the sun guided into Earth's atmosphere along its magnetic-field lines. A tremendous achievement in detective work, Birkeland's hypothesis was almost forgotten until the 1960s, when it proved prescient in light of the firsthand data collected by space-exploration missions.

Jago elegantly weaves Birkeland's meandering life into a compelling, fluid narrative, and the book immerses the reader in tactile descriptions of turn-of-the-century Scandinavian life. Unfortunately, the one subplot not tracked with sufficient care is how Birkeland came to his groundbreaking theories. The progression of his thoughts is described sketchily at times, and the full implications of his work are not unveiled until the epilogue.

Still, Jago's book contains an unexpected surprise: It illustrates the uneasy but necessary alliances between science, technology, and business. Manning Arctic outposts was far beyond Birkeland's meager professor's salary, so he lent the expertise in magnetics he gained from studying the aurora borealis to commercial endeavors, first designing a disastrous high-power electric cannon but then developing a way to use giant magnets to produce nitric acid for synthetic crop fertilizer. Though the profits from the fertilizer operation allowed him to further his studies, Jago's account shows him fretting over his commercial dealings (in which he was bested by more business-minded types) as often as over his studies.

And that's an important point. Though devoted to unlocking the mysteries of the northern lights, Birkeland was anything but single-minded in the pursuit. Jago's reporting on events peripheral to his discovery gives us a more well-rounded account of how such achievements came about. We also see how great discoveries of science can be made, and delayed, because of the fortunes of chance.

Joab Jackson writes for City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].