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At the beginning of the 20th century Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917), a Norwegian scientist of insatiable curiosity, addressed questions that had vexed European scientists for centuries. Why do the northern lights appear overhead when the Earth’s magnetic field is disturbed? How are magnetic storms connected to disturbances on the Sun? To answer these questions Birkeland interpreted his advance laboratory simulations and daring campaigns in the Arctic wilderness in the light of Maxwell’s newly discovered laws of electricity and magnetism. Birkeland’s ideas were dismissed for decades, only to be vindicated when satellites could fly above the Earth’s atmosphere.
Faced with the depleting stocks of Chilean saltpeter and the consequent prospect of mass starvation, Birkeland showed his practical side, inventing the first industrial scale method to extract nitrogen-based fertilizers from the air. Norsk Hydro, one of modern Norway’s largest industries, stands as a living tribute to his genius.
Hoping to demonstrate what we now call the solar wind, Birkeland moved to Egypt in 1913. Isolated from his friends by the Great War, Birkeland yearned to celebrate his 50th birthday in Norway. The only safe passage home, via the Far East, brought him to Tokyo where in the late spring of 1917 he passed away.
Content Level »Research
Keywords »solar system - solar wind - sun - universe
Acknowledgements. Introduction: Tempora mutant et nos cum illis mutamur. I: Background and Education. 1: At the 19th Century’s End. 1.1. Union of Norway and Sweden. 1.2. The Royal Frederik University in Kristiania. 1.3. Early Investigation of the Aurora and Geomagnetism. 2: A New Abel. 2.1. The Birkeland Family. 2.2. High School and University Education. 2.3. Postgraduate Research in France, Switzerland and Germany. II: Geomagnetic and Solar System Research. 3: Aurora in a Vacuum Chamber. 3.1. Electromagnetic Wave Experiments. 3.2. Early Laboratory Simulations. 3.3. Birkeland’s Offices and Laboratories at the University. 3.4. Terrella as Anode Experiments. 4: The Norwegian Auroral Expeditions. 4.1. Birkeland's First Expeditions. 4.2. Arctic Expedition of 1902 - 1903. 4.3. Classification of Geomagnetic Disturbances. 4.4. The Permanent Station at Haldde Mountain. 4.5. Controversies with the British School. 5: The Universe in a Vacuum Chamber. 5.1. Terrella as Cathode Experiments. 5.2. Sunspots and the Solar Magnetic Field. 5.3. Comet Tails. 5.4. Saturn's Rings. 5.5. Zodiacal Light. 5.6. Conflicts with Carl Størmer. 6: Fast Switches and Electromagnetic Cannons. 7: In as Little as Four Years. 7.1. Plasma Torch and Nitrogen Fixation. 7.2. Foundation of Norsk Hydro. 7.3. Conflict with Sam Eyde. 7.4. Marcus Wallenberg. 7.5. Other Technical Applications. III: Birkeland the Man. 8: As Seen in His Own Time. 8.1. Teacher and Experimenter. 8.2. Birkeland as a Popular Author. 8.3. Positions and Honors. 8.4. Nominations for the Nobel Prize. 9: Consummatus in brevi, explevit tempora multa. 9.1. Birkeland’s Health. 9.2. Marriage and Divorce. 9.3. Sojourn in Egypt. 9.4. Death in Tokyo. 9.5. Many Friends. 9.6. Birkeland’s Will. IV: Birkeland’s Heritage. 10: From Small Acorns. 10.1. Science Education in Norway.10.2. Influence on Solar-Terrestrial Research. 11: In Memoriam. 11.1. Kristian Birkeland Research Fund. 11.2. Birkeland Symposium. 11.3. Birkeland Lecture Series. 11.4. The Norwegian 200 Kroner Banknote. Appendix 1. Birkeland’s Scientific Publications. Appendix 2. Archives and Unpublished Sources. Appendix 3. Patents. Appendix 4. Letters. Bibliography. Index of Names.