Kristian Birkeland

Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland is known as the person responsible for explaining the natural phenomenon Aurora Borealis in great detail. He accomplished this by inventing two other scientific feats that were ahead of their time – the Birkeland-Eyde process and the electromagnetic cannon.

Early Life and Education

Kristian Olaf Birkeland was born on December 13, 1867 in Oslo which was called Christiana at that time. His parents were Reinart and Ingeborg Birkeland.

When he was 18, he completed his first ever scientific paper, showing his great interest and potential in the scientific field.


In May 1905, he married Ida Charlotte Hammer. But because it was said that Birkeland prioritized his work more than anything else, the marriage did not bear them any children. They eventually filed for divorce in 1911.

The Aurora Phenomenon

To come up with more accurate data, Kristian Birkeland organized a series of expeditions to Norway. He concentrated on the high-latitude regions and compiled magnetic field data through the number of observatories that he and his team established in the entire region covered by the phenomenon. This series of expeditions known as the Norwegian Polar Expedition was completed over the period of 1899 to 1900. From this series a lot of light was shed on the Aurora Borealis phenomenon. Using the magnetic field data they gathered, the polar region’s electric current pattern was finally explained.

A lot of his findings were also accomplished when the x-ray was discovered. He reasoned that there has to be a connection between magnets and cathode rays, and that this same connection could explain how the auroras are formed. His theory was that the sunspots on the solar surface shoot out energetic electrons towards the earth. The geomagnetic field then guides these electrons towards our polar regions, causing the production of visible aurora. This same theory is still the same working concept that is accepted to this day.

Of course, discoveries this big will never be instantly accepted especially during those times. The concept surrounding what is now called Birkeland currents remained controversial for more than half a century mostly because a phenomenon this wide in scale cannot be proven by mere ground-based projections and measurements. Mainstream scientists ridiculed his findings and theories, and a famous British mathematician and geophysicist by the name of Sydney Chapman went out of his way to vocally rebuff the concepts that Birkeland was proposing. According to Chapman, it was impossible for currents to cross space and that such currents can only come from the Earth. A Swedish scientist, Hannes Alfven, supported Birkeland’s findings as well but his explanation was also dismissed by Chapman.

It was not until 1967, long after Birkeland’s death in 1917, that his theories were finally proven to be correct. A US Navy satellite, the 1963-38c, observed magnetic disturbances every time it passed the high-latitude areas of the earth as recorded by the magnetometer that it had onboard. Initially, they were dismissed as mere hydromagnetic waves. It wasn’t until these disturbances were further analyzed that they realized that these were in fact the currents that Birkeland claimed to exist half a century ago.

Birkeland’s Inventions and Other Contributions

It was very difficult to receive funding to do further research and study for the theories that Birkeland formulated especially with the amount of ridicule that he received. Because of this, he had to create his own source of funds. Upon realizing that inventions can actually be a good source of wealth, he started developing electromagnetic cannon. He found interested investors who helped him form a firearms company. His cannon did not produce the results that he initially promised though, as it only reached velocities of 100 m/s, a far cry from the 600 m/s he promised. He called the cannon an aerial torpedo instead and hoped to use it to sell the company they built. However, the demonstration did not go well and all that he produced was an inductive arc complete with flame, smoke and a lot of noise.

A week after the failed attempt to sell the company, Sam Eyde, an engineer that Birkeland met at a dinner party, expressed the need for a big flash of lightning that they will be using to make artificial fertilizer. Remembering the effect that his failed experiment had, Birkeland immediately trashed his intent to sell the company and started working with Eyde, eventually building a device that created a plasma arc designed to complete the process of nitrogen fixation. Their prototype proved to be ready to be manufactured on a larger scale without costing too much which essentially brought about their huge success. Their company was called Norsk Hydro and Birkeland finally enjoyed the funding that he needed to complete his research.

The process that Birkeland and Eyde worked on was eventually replaced around 1910 to 1920 because it proved to be inefficient considering its energy consumption.

In 1913, Birkeland was the first to predict that plasma was in fact present everywhere in space, applying the same generally accepted concept that there are different kinds of electrons and ions flowing through space as well. It is also believed that he was the first one to state that the Solar Wind is in fact made up of a combination of positive ions and negative electrons.

Birkeland showed his diverse interests when he eventually joined the Norwegian Society for Psychic Research in 1922.

All in all, he was nominated for a Nobel Prize seven times.

Birkeland’s Death

Birkeland had been using a drug called Veronal to help him sleep, but this has also caused him to be extremely paranoid. When he travelled to Japan to visit some colleagues from the University of Tokyo, he was found dead inside his hotel room in Hotel Seiyoken on June 15, 1917. It was discovered that he had taken 10g of Veronal instead of the 0.5g that was prescribed. A lot of mystery still clouds the circumstances of his death although a lot of people believe that this was a case of suicide.