Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago

This is a fascinating book about Kristian Birkeland, a Norwegian scientist who in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries endeavoured to discover the science behind the Northern Lights.

Birkeland was a professor in the Faculty of Science and Mathematics at Christiana University. A man who was used to the comfort of a library or laboratory, his investigations led him and his team into some dangerous situations. The places best suited for viewing the Lights were also often isolated and subject to freezing temperatures. A member of his first expedition lost his fingers to frostbite. But Birkeland inspired loyalty in his students and they were willing to face danger with him. When they finally reached their base on that expedition the Lights appeared in the night sky;

Birkeland understood for the first time why the Lights had defied neat explanation: they appeared not to belong to Earth but to space. Seemingly beyond human comprehension, they reached straight into the souls of those who witnessed them as an appearance of the angelic host or the Holy Spirit might do. The glowing banners in the sky were so entrancing that the group forgot the cold and remained outside, entering the hut occasionally to eat or drink but re-emerging to watch the breathtaking display dancing over their heads.

Money to fund his research was a constant problem in the early days and he had to spend time away from his studies to engage in money-making schemes. Some of these were very successful and allowed him to direct his own studies without being controlled by the university. This did produce some professional jealousy which made his life difficult at times. His work didn't receive the recognition it should've in his lifetime. I am very ill-educated about science but the impression I got from the book was that his theories threatened the status quo and the Royal Society in London stood out against them. Without the approval of the Royal Society, he found it difficult to be taken seriously elsewhere.

It was quite a sad life, but a fascinating book. I have always wanted to see the Northern Lights. I have heard that, with the right atmospheric conditions, they can occasionally appear as far south as North East England, but I am yet to see them.


  1. I too would love to see the Northern Lights one day. Thanks for the recommendation, this book sounds very interesting.

  2. This book sounds fascinating and the passage you quoted shows that it is beautifully written. Thank you for a great recommendation.

  3. It sounds really interesting - I've always been interested in the Northern Lights, and in all things Norwegian (my grandmother was Norwegian) so I'll try to find a copy of this book.

  4. Oh I like the sound of this - is it non-fiction? Something like this will drag me away from my beloved novels!