Aurora Borealis Reading List
“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
The beginning of their first arctic Aurora research expedition was nearly the end. The team was caught in a vicious snow storm, barely making it to the stone observatory set up on a mountain peak the year before.
One of the party, the surgeon, lost his fingers to frostbite, leading a career change towards earth science.
The instruments they brought with them included state of the art gear circa 1900. The essential magnetometers were of comically Rube Goldberg design: mirrors on fine threads that twitched imperceptibly in sync with Earth's magnetic field, The mirrors bounced lamplight back and forth across clockwork-driven film strip to create a record of geomagnetic storms. These required constant 24 hour care for months at a time. The team proved the link between magnetic variations and aurora storms, and their leader, Birkeland, became a legend in the story of the aurora.
It has only been about 120 years since a scientific approach was first used to try and understand the aurora. It is one of the newest sciences. Our journey in understanding them and their message has just begun.
There are still open questions as fundamental as, 'what exactly causes aurora storms?' and, 'why are aurora shaped the way they are and move the way they do?'.
This is an open field of research, and one of the areas of science where Citizen Scientists have made recent and novel contributions like the STEVE phenomena and the most recent Dunes aurora formations.
The history, science, and people make for some excellent reading. The best way to really get into the subject is to read an engaging, fearless book about it.
Engaging means that it is accessible to people who don't know all the history and jargon of a subject,
Fearless means that the book is willing to dive into interesting details without using over-simplification.
Here are some of my favourite books that are both Engaging and Fearless on the subject of exploring the Aurora. Let me know if you have any to add.
The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago (2002)
The story about the fateful snowstorm starts this book. It focuses on the passion, obsession, and perseverance of Birkeland. He was obsessed by the aurora and their mystery - at the time it was still debated if they appeared between mountain peaks.
He led the near-insane expeditions up north at a time when Norwegian arctic and antarctic exploration was like exploring the moon. Ultimately he came to believe that the aurora were driven by the sun - a hypothesis that met with strong opposition at the time ("How could anything travel through the vacuum of space between the sun and Earth? Ridiculous!").
In order to fund his research, he became an engineer/industrialist with science-fiction inventions such as rail-gun-like cannons and plasma manufacture of fertilizers, and amazed royal audiences with high voltage models of the northern and southern aurora.
His fame within Norway at this time was like Elon Musk or Einstein and the story is told with an eye for detail, both in the science and the personalities that drove discovery.
Aurora - In Search of the Northern Lights by Dr. Melanie Windridge (2017)
While the first book focuses on one personality from a historical perspective, Dr. Windridge's book, published in 2017, is a travel log, visiting the places and people that define the modern aurora hunting and research landscape.
It is engaging because of the stories of photographers and researchers and their motivations.
It is fearless in describing the physics with clear, uncompromising analogies. The author travels throughout the book, and uses each encounter to springboard into a corresponding piece of the science and history puzzle.
Reading the above two books back-to-back, you can see how much and how little things have changed in the aurora community. The wonder, mystery, obsession, and international collaborations are all still there, and you wish deeply that you could send a copy of this book back to Birkeland in the early 1900s (without altering the timeline or creating grandfather paradoxes etc.)
Secrets of the Aurora Borealis by Dr. Syun-Ichi Akasofu (2009)
The secrets of the Aurora Borealis is for a general audience, even though it was written by the researcher who defined and described the aurora as a series of "Auroral Substorms".
This is essentially a coffee-table book. It is photo and illustration focused, and has chapters that touch on mythology, history, early research, and 20th century space-based findings about the aurora.
It is easily digestible in a random-access fashion and is a great foundation for anyone about to go on an aurora-chasing expedition of their own. It even includes a section on camera-settings.
Although out of print, it can be found used online. I think is a great addition to the bookshelf or coffee table to revisit a few pages at a time whenever you are in the mood.
I will be adding more books here as they are read, so if you want to recommend one, please let me know!