"As gripping as a Conan Doyle adventure." –Harper's Magazine
"Fascinating... evokes the manic, punishing era of polar exploration."– The New York Times Book Review
"A fascinating nugget of history... Jago charts her course unerringly."–Chicago Tribune
"Jago deftly paints a historical background for some of the most important concepts in electromagnetic theory today, breathing life into [her] subject."–Scientific American
"Thrilling... if you like a Faustian fable, war, and weird science, then this is for you."-Conde Nast Traveler
The Barnes & Noble.com Review
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)
Crackling with Arctic adventure, this biography of the brilliant Norwegian physicist Kristian Birkeland (1873-1917) is set in the early 20th century and cast against the driving spirits of the Edwardian Age. Freewheeling capitalism, imperialism, industrialization and a near reverence for the growing myth of science informed Birkeland's cerebral and adventurous life. A stolid Scandinavian with a wide-ranging imagination, he undertook the first scientific studies of the aurora borealis, which had previously been explained by a range of theories that included the supernatural. Detailed descriptions of his expeditions to the far polar reaches of the earth are filled with scientific wonder and life-threatening hazards. Through his short life, Birkeland continued his studies of the northern lights. He evolved a theory, proven after his death, that the origin of this natural phenomenon is in the electromagnetic energy of the sun and its profound influence on the earth. At the same time, he also developed a financially successful method of extracting nitrogen, for fertilizer, from the air and performed seminal work on the military applications of electricity. Birkeland also traveled to romantic places for research: Russia, Egypt, Sudan and Japan. Yet beneath the apparently successful surface of Birkeland's life were deep strains. He abused alcohol and barbiturates, lost friends and colleagues, destroyed his marriage and died alone and paranoid in a foreign country, yielding a bittersweet story capably told by British TV journalist and BBC producer Jago. Illus. (Oct. 1) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kristian Birkeland, who did his work in the late 1800s to 1917, is best known for studying the Earth's electromagnetic field; he was the scientist who developed an authentic explanation for the aurora borealis. It is appropriate that a Norwegian, who would have gazed in awe at the northern lights that flick like magnificent curtains across the arctic winter sky, should be the one to make this breakthrough. But Jago, in this biography, does a good job of seeing Birkeland whole. Constantly challenged by other scientists who questioned his work, Birkeland often could not concentrate on the work that should have been central to his life effort. His theoretical work was also sidelined by the need to make a living and fund his work and to calls on his time by persons who needed more practical things done. Birkeland developed a cannon that could be fired using an electrical charge, and he experimented with the extraction of saltpeter from the air and with hydroelectricity. Yet, despite distractions, the range of his studies of the aurora was impressive. He built four stations, one near the northern tip of Sweden, the others at the islands of Iceland, Spitsbergen, and Novaya Zemlya, and maintained crews at them during the arctic winter. He constructed a series of vacuum chambers and studied the Zodiacal light from the deserts of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He accomplished all this while WW I and Norway's fight for independence from Sweden were taking place. Finally, near the end of his life, he went to the Far East, to Japan. There he did further study and writing, but his health deteriorated and he died in a Tokyo hotel. His family and colleagues carelessly scattered his library and personaleffects, and only in time would scientists realize the value of his life work. Jago artfully depicts Birkeland as extremely driven to complete his scientific endeavors but also as living in the real world where he had to earn money, negotiate a complex political situation, and deal with people who took advantage of him. Readers attracted to stories of troubled geniuses, scientific breakthroughs, and Norwegian history will be pleased to find this biography of Kristian Birkeland on the shelves. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Random House, Vintage, 297p. illus. bibliog. index., Boardman
The awe-inspiring aurora borealis was, appropriately, first explained by a Norwegian scientist, whose story Jago sets forth. Jago, a London-based TV journalist, begins by showing Kristian Birkeland (1868-1917) on his first Arctic expedition, in 1899, to Finnmark in the far north of Norway. At 31, Birkeland had shown unusual aptitude at science and only a year before had become a professor of physics at Norway's only university. More accustomed to the laboratory than to the demanding Arctic weather he and his assistants were about to face, Birkeland had a theory that the aurora was caused by solar particles entering Earth's magnetic field. After an incredibly harsh winter featuring high winds that nearly destroyed the scientists' rude shelter and an avalanche that killed one of his assistants, Birkeland had his data. But time to analyze and publish the results was hard to come by, and the expedition had already wildly exceeded its budget. To free himself from the demands of teaching, Birkeland began to search for some patentable process to provide cash that would support full-time research. After several time-consuming projects, he perfected a method for extracting atmospheric nitrogen, in demand as the basis for synthetic fertilizers. Meanwhile, his explanation of the aurora (bolstered by some fascinating laboratory work) fell flat because he still could not explain how solar particles reached Earth. Nationalist rivalries in the pre-WWI era further undermined Birkeland's ability to make his mark: A staunch Norwegian patriot, he faced condescension from the then-dominant German and British scientific establishments. His frustrating final days were spent in exile in Egypt, then in Japan,where he died, his theories still rejected-although they are now considered proven. A fascinating picture of a scientist whose distinguished career deserves to be better known. First printing of 75,000