Summary and book reviews of The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago

The Northern Lights

The True Story of the Man Who Unlocked the Secrets of the Aurora Borealis

by Lucy Jago

The Northern Lights
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2001, 320 pages
    Oct 2002, 320 pages

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About this Book

Book Summary

An exhaustively researched and thrillingly told saga of one man's compulsive quest to discover the origins of the Northern Lights.

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.

From Chapter 1
Odin's Messengers

14 October 1899
Finnmark, Northern Norway, within the Arctic Circle

It is true of the northern lights, as of many other things of which we have no sure knowledge, that thoughtful men will form opinions and conjectures about it and will make such guesses as seem reasonable. But these northern lights have this peculiar nature, that the darker the night is, the brighter they seem, and they always appear at night but never by day, and rarely by moonlight. They resemble a vast flame of fire viewed from a great distance. It also looks as if sharp points were shot from this flame up into the sky, they are of uneven height and in constant motion, now one, now another darting highest; and the light appears to blaze like a living flame . . .
--Kongespeilet (The King's Mirror), c. 1220-30, Norse epic

It was ten in the morning and -25° Celsius when the group left the small mining town of Kaafjord for the summit of Haldde Mountain, Haldde being a ...

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Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

A fascinating picture of a scientist whose distinguished career deserves to be better known.

Publishers Weekly

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 ..... a bittersweet story capably told by British TV journalist and BBC producer Jago.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

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.

Reader Reviews


A must read
One of the most interesting and amazing stories I have ever read. Well written. Reads like a novel with in depth history of Birklands quest to discover the technology used in many scientific applications utilized today. A man worthy of our ...   Read More


Norwegian Adventure
Many people will pass this book by thinking that it's another dull scientific tale. THAT IS THEIR LOSS. This well-written book tells the history of the Norwegian scientist who discovered the secrets behind the Northern Lights(aurora borealis) in a ...   Read More


Fascinating novel
This was a very good book. You learn a lot about Birkeland and how hard he worked to achieve his goals. I recommend this book to readers that enjoy science novels and who love to learn about the fascinating Aurora Borealis.

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