Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Reader's Diary #265- Lucy Jago: The Northern Lights (up to "Riddle Solved")

Have you heard of the CBC's search for the Seven Wonders of Canada? Robert has followed suit and is searching for the Seven Wonders of Newfoundland. An interesting similarity between the two lists is the appearance of the northern lights. Our fascination does not seem diminished despite a rational explanation for the phenomenon.

Much of this understanding comes from the research of Kristian Birkeland, a Norwegian scientist who set out to unlock their mysteries and debunk much of the myth.

When I first moved to Rankin Inlet, the local children told me about the Northern Lights. I was told they were the spirits of their ancestors playing soccer. But as charming as that might sound, I was also warned that if I whistled they might come down and steal my head for their ball. (Not to worry, they were easily scared away by rubbing one's fingernails together or zipping and unzipping one's parka very fast). Fascinating, The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago is primarily set in Europe yet the myths were surprisingly similar. She writes that the Lapps believed that whistling (and also tinkling bells) provoked the lights into attacking as well. And the Icelandic people also believed in the ball-playing, head-stealing, spirit explanation. Fascinating that such beliefs continue, even if just among the children.

Watching the lights myself, it's not hard to see that they'd inspire awe and theories of a supernatural nature. Their movements do seem somehow alive and upon whistling (yes, I had to try), they did seem to come closer (and yes, I am now without a head). The thing is, I knew the science was out there for me to read if I was so inclined, but I guess the romantic part of me just wanted them to retain their mystery. I feared resentment I guess, a little like Walt Whitman upon hearing the "Learn'd Astronomer". Yet reading about Birkeland I get the sense that science was as enchanting for him as spirituality was for others.

This is Birkeland's story. Jago writes much like Pierre Berton, making historical characters larger than life while working facts in like the backdrop of a novel. And reading the back of the book, Birkeland's life promises to be almost as fascinating as the lights themselves. Not only does he take on the lights like an obsession, but the reader is also treated to slow, creeping revelations about his manic-depressive slide into madness. This, we are told up front, leads to Nobel Prize controversies, an exile in Egypt, and it culminates with a suspicious death in Japan.

Science should always come wrapped in a story, don't you think?

(This is a picture of the northern lights as seen in October 2004, Rankin Inlet. It wasn't a particularly colourful display, but those seemed rare while we were there. I've seen a lot of more reds, purples, and so on since I moved to Iqaluit. Photographing the northern lights is very difficult for an amateur like myself. You need a lot of time and patience, a tripod, and knowledge about shutter speeds- I'm 0 for 3. This was the best I could do. I didn't do them justice I'm afraid. It looks like the clouds are illuminated instead of swirling ghostlike figures. Oh well. That's what memories are for.)


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I think this is a book that I would be interested in reading. I do enjoy understanding the science behind something, and it would be intriguing to read about someone who spent their life studying something as ripe with mystery and myth as the northern lights.

That actually is not a bad picture you took - next to impossible to photograph those suckers. We had spectacular northern lights, growing up in Winnipeg, but Calgary seems strangely devoid of them.

Sam said...

Neat picture, John. I've always wanted to see the northern lights but it probably won't happen for me.

BTW, I'm tagging you for the 8 Things meme. The details are on my blog, no obligation if you don't feel like it!

Gentle Reader said...

I've always wanted to see the Northern Lights, too--and like Sam, I was going to tag you for the same meme. So consider yourself tagged twice! Sorry about that! And don't feel obligated to answer twice (or even once, if you don't feel like it...).

Allison said...

I saw the Northern Lights a few years ago in Kingston, which was surprising, and they left me in total awe. I didn't even think about running back inside to get my camera it was one of those things I knew I'd permanently save to the brain.

This book definitely seems like it would be interesting. I find science easier to understand when it comes with a story!

Dale said...

The book sounds fascinating and I think I may need to pick it up for a friend who's especially interested in the 'lights'. I'd like to see them up close but not so close I'd need to worry about my noggin.

John Mutford said...

Barbara, I guess it's not bad. I've just seen them so much more impressive (both in person and in other photos).

Sam, You never know. It actually mentions a rare occurence where they were seen as far south as Jamaica.

Sam and Gentle Reader, I did the tag thingy here. Btw Sam, I tagged you earlier but you may have missed it.

Allison, It was probably just as well that you didn't bother with the camera. They're so rare in the south that it was best to just enjoy them, I'm sure.

Dale, Yeah, it's a fascinating book. My wife gets the credit for picking it out though, it was a Christmas present. I hadn't heard of it.