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Aurorae Borealis Essay

948 words - 4 pages

Aurorae BorealisThe Northern Lights and Kristian BirkelandThe northern lights have inspired awe and reverence in people all throughout the northern latitudes. At their most impressive, they form an immense halo of pulsating light around the pole, stretching hundreds of kilometers out into space. People in the 18th century were unsure what to make of these mysterious lights. The Lapps saw the lights as messengers of God which might strike down anyone foolish enough to provoke them. In Scandinavian folklore, the lights are reflections from icebergs, the wings of migrating geese, or from shoals or herring swimming close to the surface of the sea.It was Galileo who first dubbed the term boreal aurora to describe the northern lights, after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn. Though the name stuck, it is misleading because aurora seen in southern latitudes glow pinkish-red. True aurora is green and white.Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917) had long been fascinated with the strange and hypnotizing lights. In 1899 he and several others made a journey to a mountaintop in Norway, during which they experienced frostbite, week-long blizzards and months of sunless winter desolation. There he verified that the aurora was not lights bouncing off icebergs but rather an electrical phenomenon triggered by solar activity. He hypothesized that they arose from the interaction between electrically-charged particles emanating from the Sun and the Earth?s magnetic field. Birkeland?s claims were strengthened by a more extensive survey in the winter of 1902 that involved four observation stations set up around the Arctic Circle in Russia, Iceland and Norway. Despite the evidence he had, his theories failed to gain widespread acceptance until essentially confirmed by satellite evidence in the 1960s.Birkeland was eccentric and brilliant. An avid Egyptophile, he often wore a fez and red leather slippers with pointed toes. He was a highly controversial physicist in his day, keeping notes strung out everywhere and was thrown into the air by bolts of electricity on more than one occasion by one of his experiments gone awry. He arranged to give an important lecture on the morning of his wedding day and was obliged to speak very fast in order to reach the ceremony on time. After five long years of neglect, his wife left him.In 1913, Birkeland traveled to Egypt to study the zodiacal lights and found himself stranded there because of the war in Europe. Isolated from friends and family, and already accustomed to drinking heavily, he started to take Veronal to cure his insomnia. At the age of 49, in 1917, he was found dead in a Tokyo hotel room after taking 20 times the normal dosage for Veronal.An explosion from the sun hurls 10 billion tons of hot plasma toward the Earth. It crosses the vast gulf of space, racing at speeds of up...

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