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The Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis

The Northern Lights BookThe Northern Lights: How One Man Sacrificed Love, Happiness and Sanity to Solve the Mystery of the Aurora Borealis The Northern Lights is Lucy Jago's compassionate account of the lonely and ultimately tragic life of Kristian Birkeland, the pioneer of our understanding of the Aurora Borealis. The cost of scientific advancement should not be measured in purely financial terms--illumination did not come cheaply to Birkeland, who experienced poor health, heavy solitary drinking, a failed marriage, resentment from colleagues and lack of international respect. In fact, it took until nearly 50 years after his death in 1917 for his theories to be substantiated, a delay which slowed the advance of geomagnetic and auroral physics. As well a scientific biography, The Northern Lights is also the story of a small nation trying to come out from the shadow of larger ones, to be accorded respect scientifically and to gain political independence.

Birkeland led expeditions to the freezing wastes of northern Norway to prove that the phenomenon Aristotle had called "jumping goats" and Galileo had termed boreale aurora, was caused by a flow of electric particles from the sun. He also went to Africa to study the Zodiacal Light, which he believed to be similarly derived but by then his mental and physical health were deteriorating fast, paranoia convincing him that the British, whose scientific fraternity had so stubbornly disdained his work, were spying on him. Unintentionally eccentric, as a university professor he wore a red fez and red leather Egyptian slippers and his idea of courtship involved sending a female admirer a sack of potatoes or perhaps some dried flatfish. As side-projects, he was also the inventor of the world's first commercial fertiliser maker and a more sinister electro-magnetic cannon. This is splendid, alleviating stuff for a biographer and former documentary producer Lucy Jago breathes commendably thawing air into a potentially icy subject. Fastidiously researched and recounted with unbounded vigour, the obvious comparison is with Dava Sobel's Longitude but perhaps the more pertinent one is with Richard Panek's history of the telescope, Seeing and Believing, for its concise science and accessible narrative. Either way, Jago's assured debut does great credit to an obsessive inquirer who sacrificed his life, too literally, for celestial enlightenment.

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