It is 100 years since Norway’s most famous physicist and industry researcher died. Kristian Birkeland was the world’s first space researcher and put Norwegian physics on the world map.
Author Lucy Jago has written an excellent book on Kristian Birkeland, “Northern Lights – The True Story of the Man who Unlocked the Secrets of Aurora Borealis”. Ex-TV documentary producer Lucy Jago came across Birkeland’s story while making the BBC series The Planets.
Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917) accomplished this by inventing two other scientific feats that were ahead of their time, the Birkeland-Eyde process of fixing nitrogen from the air and the electromagnetic cannon, which funded his research on the aurorae. It is surprising that the genuine discovery of a scientist and inventor of such obvious eminence and importance has escaped attention until now.
Birkeland’s pursuit took him to some of the most forbidding landscapes on earth, from the remote snowcapped mountains of Norway to the war-torn deserts of Africa. In the face of rebuke by the scientific establishment, sabotage by a jealous rival, and his own battles with depression and paranoia, Birkeland remained steadfast. Discoveries this big will never be instantly accepted especially during those times. The concept, called Birkeland currents, remained controversial for more than half a century mostly because a phenomenon this wide in scale cannot be proven by mere ground-based projections and measurements.
Kristian Olaf Birkeland was born on December 13, 1867 in Oslo (called Christiana at that time). When he was 18, he completed his first ever scientific paper, showing his great interest and potential in the scientific field.
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).
In continental Europe Birkeland was reckoned to have made an immense breakthrough and was considered a figure of international importance, but in Britain, sadly, the Royal Society dismissed him as a crank.
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.
However, It was not until 1967, long after Birkeland’s death that his theories were finally proven to be correct. A US Navy satellite, the 1963-38c, observed magnetic disturbances every time it passed the high-latitude areas of the earth. It wasn’t until these disturbances were further analyzed that they realized that these were in fact the currents that Birkeland claimed to exist half a century ago.
Birkeland was nominated for the Nobel Prize seven times, but his hopes for the prize scuttled —at the time of his death in 1917, almost certainly from an accidental overdose of a sleeping draught, in a Japanese hotel room.
Lucy Jago’s book offers a rare look inside the mind of one of history’s most visionary scientists.
Norwegian Scientist Solved the Mysteries of Spectacular Aurora Borealis, written by Tor Kjolberg