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The Northern Lights: How One Man Sacrificed Love, Happiness and Sanity to Solve the Mystery of the Aurora Borealis Paperback – 2 May 2002
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In this non-fiction debut, Lucy Jago tells the fascinating and moving story of visionary scientist, Kristian Birkeland, the man whose quest to solve the mystery of the Northern Lights cost him his sanity, and ultimately his life. Discovered dead in a Japanese hotel room in June 1917, in suspicious circumstances, the tragedy and mystery of Birkeland's life is a hitherto untold drama, set against some of the most dramatic landscapes on Earth, from the ice mountains of Northern Norway to the deserts of Africa, at a time of political upheaval and war. Misunderstood in his lifetime, Birkeland's ideas about our universe are now considered brilliantly prophetic. The story of how he arrived at them, sacrificing love and happiness in the pursuit of knowledge, is as stirring as any in modern science.
About the Author
Lucy Jago is in her early 30s and lives in London. She is a former television documentary producer who fell in love with the story of Kristian Birkeland when in Norway filming the aurora borealis for a BBC 1 documentary.
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Under extreme conditions and in the most politically unsure of times, Birkeland toiled endlessly for the ultimate gain - scientific recognition. It is a story of ultimate sacrifice that he did not achieve this in his own lifetime, and his findings are only retrospectively being acknowledged, thanks to the works of authors such as Jago.
Her depiction of the harsh Norwegian mountainscapes, the arid North African deserts and the isolated Russian arctic islands are the settings for Birkeland's aim to understand the magical and revered aurora borealis. He undertook years of meticulously planned research with often more data than was physically possible to review, despite the scorn and rejection of his more stoic academic colleagues. Yet his unique brand of field research is testament to his own prophetic belief that the vastly influential magnetic field of the sun and the subsequently projected solar winds cause the beautiful northern lights all across the globe.
In tandem with this tale are adventures involving Birkeland's nitrate experiments, his creation of an electro-magnetic canon and his work at the Norsk hydro-electric dams. His research, although callously and shamelessly plagiarised by his less talented contemporaries such as Eyde, resulted in some of the most successful business ventures and areas of discovery in all of Scandinavian history. All of this is told against the backdrop of the fierce determination of Norway to establish itself against the centuries-long oppression of the occupying Swedish nation of the pre-1900s.
Ultimately, this is also a tale of doomed love in Birkeland's often enforced absence from the side of his wife Ida. Jago's success is in her ability to combine all of these elements together into a part historical narrative, part romance, part adventure tale that reads almost like fiction. Birkeland's history rivals the achievements of his fellow countrymen Roald Amundsen and, latterly, Thor Heyerdahl. In summary, a great read.
Lucy Jago has researched the book so thoroughly she writes as though she were there besides Birkeland a lot of them time, such are the small details she intersperses throughout the text like what people wore and ate. The book often feels more like a novel than a non-fiction work.
Birkeland was a classic eccentric scientist, driven above all else to get to the bottom of his great obsession, to the detriment of his career and personal life. Like so many great thinkers, the Norwegian's contribution to science was only fully appreciated after his death, but with hindsight this book allows us now to appreciate his genius.
The story of Kristian Birkeland, outstanding Norweigian physicist and his myriad adventures in climes from the arctic to the equator as he sought to unravel the mystery of the aurora borealis. On his intellectual odyssey he encounters unscrupulous investors, bickering engineers and even enters the world of soldiers and armaments.
Jago successfuly develops Birkeland not as a historical figure and subject of narrative, but as someone you almost feel you know or, more tragically, wish you had known. She succeeds where few authors do: in generating genuine empathy between reader and subject. Kristian Birkeland deserved this book to be written; Lucy Jago deserves it to succeed.
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