The Northern Lights and Kristian Birkeland
The 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
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