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At the turn of the 20th century, Kirstian Birkeland, a brilliant Norwegian physicist, undertook several expeditions to the Arctic to accumulate data and support for his theory that the northern lights were connected to the sun's magnetic field. This is the fascinating story of his obsessive quest, tragic death, and ultimate vindication.
In Birkeland's day, auroras were one of the last unsolved phenomena of the natural world. It was his belief that they marked the link between earth and the energy forces in the universe. His Arctic voyages make for wonderful reading in their own right, but they are only a prelude to the tale that follows. When Birkeland -- and what remained of his crew -- returned to Norway, he wanted to build a safe laboratory environment that re-created the Arctic conditions of the northern lights. His scheme was to create inventions that he hoped to sell to industry, but most were spectacular failures. One blew up in his face, threw him across the room, and set fire to a power station all at once. Another shot flames and an electric arc at an audience he had gathered to demonstrate his new creation. But Birkeland finally figured out that by using the same technology that had led to his former pyrotechnic disasters, he could produce saltpeter fertilizer. The discovery made him a very wealthy man and freed him up to do his work. Unencumbered by financial restraints and divorced by his desperately lonely wife, whom he had all but abandoned, he was able to give free rein to his brilliant obsessions.
In Birkeland's remaining years he worked demonically, devising a cosmogony that included the electromagnetic nature of the universe and the splitting of the atom. His story ends tragically, with drug and alcohol abuse, paranoia, and death in Japan in 1917 at the age of 51. For many years thereafter, his theories were ignored, but in 1966 a U.S. Navy navigation satellite observed magnetic disturbances on nearly every pass it made over the polar regions. Birkeland was vindicated, and today he is acknowledged as being the first scientist to have a correct explanation of the aurora borealis. "Birkeland currents," as they were christened in 1967, pay homage to his vision. (Judith Estrine)