The Northern Lights

Lucy Jago

Read November 2002

Found in an excellent used-bookstore in Charleston, SC (Atlantic Books, the one on East Bay). Well-told biography of a creative, penetrating and versatile scientist, Kristian Birkeland, with a brief history of Norwegian identity (of which I knew very little) woven in. (For instance, I never understood why the pioneers of object-oriented programming referred to themselves as the "Norwegian School". I came to appreciate their moniker after reading this book.)

The title of the book ostensibly refers to the Aurora Borealis, which Birkeland helped explain, but don't let the title fool you. The Aurora is a backdrop to his life's work, but the book is maddeningly short on scientific detail and citations. Read it instead as the biography of a remarkable mind who did stellar work under very constrained circumstances, and you will enjoy it a whole lot more. (It's also the story of the development of science in a country.) Parse the title as a reference to the person, not the natural phenomenon. (Norway recently put Birkeland on a bank note.)