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It is fitting, in an ironic sense, that BBC journalist Lucy Jago chose Kristian Birkeland for the subject of her first book. Birkeland unlocked the secrets of the aurora borealis, and it was the British that scoffed at Birkeland’s theories and dismissed his work in the early 1900s. The Northern Lights recounts Birkeland’s life-long journey through the still-fledgling fields of electromagnetism and solar astronomy. Jago’s book, although well-written and interesting, fails to rise to the level of “thrilling” that the publisher touts.
Birkeland, a native Norwegian, spent a year on a remote Finnish mountain tracking the magnetic fields of the Earth and their relationship to the auroras, the so-called northern lights. At the end of the nineteenth century, the setting of Jago’s account, the northern lights were still a mystery—heralded by some as messages from the gods and by others as signals from the dead. Jago manages to successfully transport the reader to Birkeland’s world, where adventurers still dreamed not of faraway planets, stars and moons, but of uncharted mountains, desolate frozen poles and the Dark Continent of Africa. Birkeland’s native Norway was “chafing” under the rule of Sweden and electrical engines were still years in the future. Jago explains that scientists in the late nineteenth century still wrestled with some of the great mysteries of the natural world: What powered the sun? What produced a magnet? And, most central to the book, what caused the northern lights? Birkeland made it his quest to answer these questions.
His life was the stuff of contemporary legends: His studies of the auroras, his creation of a cannon which could fire a hundred kilometers and his travels to exotic locales like Egypt, Russia and Japan helped propel him to the forefront of European science at the end of the Edwardian age. In his spare time, he even found a financially viable procedure to extract nitrogen from the air for use in fertilizer. He eventually presented a theory—proven years after his lonely death—that the origin of the beautiful waves of the borealis were rooted in the Earth’s electromagnetic field and the energy from similar phenomena on the sun.
Jago digs deep into Birkeland’s life in a narrative style made classic by VH1’s “Behind the Music.” As the young professor’s academic work took off, his personal life fell apart, resulting in a drinking and drug problem, a wrecked marraige, lost friends and, finally, after several paranoid episodes, a sad death caused by a drug overdose half-a-world away from home.
Although The Northern Lights fills an important hole in scientific literature, Jago’s work fails to rise to the scientifically stimulating level of a book like Dava Sobel’s Longitude or to the level of thrilling adventure stories like Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Journey. Nonetheless, Jago should be applauded for her well-researched attempt to grant Birkeland the credit the British denied him a century ago.
THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
297 pp., $24
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