The Northern Lights: The True Story of the Man Who Unlocked the Secrets of the Aurora Borealis

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9780375409806: The Northern Lights: The True Story of the Man Who Unlocked the Secrets of the Aurora Borealis

Throughout the ages, the lights of the aurora borealis were believed to be messengers of gods, signs of apocalypse, or souls of the dead; even the most sophisticated scientists misapprehended their cause. Now Lucy Jago tells the story of the science--and the romance--behind the Northern Lights as she traces the grand adventure of the life of the visionary Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland.

At the age of thirty-one, Birkeland set out on a lifelong, increasingly compulsive quest to discover the origins of the aurora borealis. He traveled across some of the most forbidding landscapes on Earth, from the ice mountains of Norway to the deserts of Africa, against a backdrop of war and political upheaval. Along the way, Birkeland made some remarkable discoveries and inventions, such as the idea of hearing aids for deaf patients; of making caviar from cod roe; and of using the force of cathode rays to propel rockets. No country's armed forces ever adopted his electromagnetic cannon, but the technology has since been adapted and extended to make "railguns" (electromagnetic mass accelerators) for the American Strategic Defense Initiative--the so-called "Star Wars" Defense.

Ultimately, Kristian Birkeland's obsession with the workings of the cosmos cost him his health, his happiness, and his sanity--perhaps even his life. He spent his final days in exile in Egypt, and died in 1917 in Japan, under suspicious circumstances, his groundbreaking theories unheralded; he was cheated of the Nobel Prize by a rival. But now Birkeland?s ideas are considered to have been prophetic, and they have furthered our understanding not only of the Northern Lights but also of electromagnetism, comets, and the sun.

Exhaustively researched and thrillingly told, the previously unknown story of Kristian Birkeland is an enthralling--and enlightening--saga.

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From the Back Cover:

"In a narrative style that makes even the most confusing science easily understood, Lucy Jago has not merely researched and written the incredible story of one man's total and ill-respected dedication to science, but the story of many creative people: those who give the world so much at the expense of their one most valuable commodity–their minds."

Providence Sunday Journal


"Jago is a taut, imaginative writer. Her description of the winter Birkeland and his young protégés spent huddled by the stove makes one gasp at the old, reckless days of science. . . . The pleasure of the biography is Jago's gossipy, emotive interest in Birkeland's character and disappointments. . . . Entertaining, provocative."

The Times Literary Supplement

"In The Northern Lights, Jago uncovers a subject that has been all but buried: the true story of Kristian Birkeland, a man more than half a century ahead of his time in his scientific pursuits. The book details the life of the Norwegian scientist as he struggles, at the turn of the 19th century, to solidify his theories about the aurora borealis, or northern lights. Jago deftly paints a historical background for some of the most important concepts in electromagnetic theory today, breathing life into a subject traditionally presented with a drab countenance."

Scientific American

"First-time author Lucy Jago now resurrects this intrepid, visionary, and obsessively hardworking genius in a compulsively readable tale of courage, conviction, and betrayal. Jago's lucid and captivating blend of biography, physics, and cultural history adds a vital chapter to the annals of science and finally gives Birkeland his due."

Booklist (*starred* review)

"A page-turner. Jago makes Birkeland's contributions intimately fascinating. She has taken an interesting life and told it with pacing and excitement. Northern Lights doesn't get bogged down in the minutiae that so often make reading a biography an insurmountable task. It's a 19th-century life, told with streamlined 21st-century élan."

The Austin Chronicle

"The story behind the discovery [of what causes the Northern Lights]–the odd and interesting account of Kristian Birkeland–is worth checking out. Lucy Jago has written a fascinating nugget of history in The Northern Lights. Birkeland died–alone and uncelebrated–in Japan. But, as is often the case, a sad life makes for a fascinating story."

Chicago Tribune (review of audio version, read by Michael Cumpsty)


"Instead of a stiff, scholarly biography, British journalist Jago has written a poignantly human story filled with minute, extensively researched details, from a description of the wallpaper in Birkeland's observatory to his courtship and married life. In readable prose, she relates complex scientific concepts and places Birkeland's discoveries and contributions in a place of prominence."

Library Journal (*starred* review)

"A well researched biographical tale of the Norwegian physicist and genius Kristian Birkeland. Lucy Jago has turned his life into a highly compelling story that keeps the reader interested, and also learning, as the tale unfolds. . . . The scientific details in the book are well presented: readers with only a high-school background in physics will understand them, while university-trained physicists will also find them acceptable and accurate. . . . In summary, this is a somewhat tragic but compelling story of a scientist and engineer who had brilliant insights and seemingly boundless energy. Jago tells the tale with a well judged balance between the scientific background to his life, the excitement of carrying out his projects and his experience of life as a human being. This book is a carefully crafted biography and a very good read."
Physics World

"Fascinating and accomplished. . . . [A] heartbreaking biography. . . . Jago manages to present her chemistry and physics with clarity as well as compassion. Her poignant illumination of [Kristian Birkeland's] difficult life and brilliant work bestows belated recognition."
The Seattle Times

"Lucy Jago's account of [Kristian Birkeland's] heroic and horrifying expedition . . . is as gripping as a Conan Doyle adventure."
Harper's Magazine

"Lucy Jago's account of [Kristian Birkeland's] life within his scientific times is a satisfying attempt at rehabilitation -- even score-settling. . . . Birkeland's story is a fascinating one, evoking the manic, punishing era of polar exploration as it overlapped with early-20th-century atomic physics, set against a background of Norway's struggle for independence and the outbreak of World War I."
–Annette Kobak, The New York Times Book Review

"A stunning debut... The Northern Lights brings alive a bygone era and a man who changed how we perceive the magnetic and solar wonders of the universe. Lucy Jago's crisp and careful prose gives a surprising access both into the complex physics behind the aurora borealis and the brilliant, misunderstood Kristian Birkeland. This well-crafted book is at turns compelling, illuminating, and remarkably full of adventure; at times evocative of the character-driven histories found in Longitude and The Professor and The Madman. By story's end, Birkeland's generosity and eccentricities have choreographed his downfall and, in his passing, we have an intimate glimpse into a life as elusive and spectacular as the aurora borealis itself."
--Jonathan Waterman, author of Arctic Crossing and In the Shadow of Denali

About the Author:

Lucy Jago is a former documentary producer for Channel 4 and the BBC. She has been awarded two academic scholarships and a Double First Class Honours Degree from King's College, University of Cambridge, and a master's degree from the Courtauld Institute, London. She lives in She lives in Dorset, England.

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