Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland is best known for explaining the natural phenomenon of Aurora Borealis in great detail.
He also invented two other scientific feats – the Birkeland-Eyde process for nitrogen fixation 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.
In 1885 he attended The University of Oslo, initially studying chemistry and mathematics. He then switched to theoretical physics and graduated with his degree in 1890.
In May 1905, he married Ida Charlotte Hammer; the marriage did not bear them any children. Birkeland was reputed to have prioritized his work more than anything else, and they eventually divorced in 1911.
The Aurora Phenomenon
To produce more accurate data on the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, Kristian Birkeland organized a series of expeditions to Norway. He concentrated on the high-latitude regions and compiled magnetic field data through a number of observatories that he and his team established in the 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 much 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.
The advent of x-ray analysis led Birkeland to devise vacuum chambers to observe the effect of magnets on cathode rays. He reasoned that there had 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.
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 the famous British mathematician and geophysicist 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.
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 had claimed existed 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, Birkeland had to create his own source of funds. Upon realizing that inventions can actually be a good source of wealth, he started developing an electromagnetic cannon. He found interested investors who helped him form a firearms company. Unfortunately, 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 he had established. 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.
However by serendipity, a week after the failed attempt to sell the company, he met Sam Eyde, an engineer, at a dinner party. Eyde discussed the requirement for a huge flash of lightning to enable the production of artificial fertilizer. Remembering the effect that his failed experiment had, Birkeland immediately dropped his intention to sell the firearms company and started working with Eyde. They eventually built a device that created a plasma arc designed to complete the process of nitrogen fixation. A prototype was developed and a cost effective design was established to allow for large scale manufacture. The new company “Norsk Hydro” was a huge success and Birkeland finally enjoyed the funding that he needed to complete his research.
The nitrogen fixation process that Birkeland and Eyde worked on was eventually replaced from 1910 to 1920 by more energy efficient processes.
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. It is also believed that he was first to state that the Solar Wind is in fact made up of a combination of positive ions and negative electrons.
Enjoying all aspects of science and phenomena, Birkeland joined the Norwegian Society for Psychic Research in 1922.
All in all, he was nominated for a Nobel Prize seven times.
Birkeland had been using a drug called Veronal to help him sleep, often prescribed at that time as a sleeping aid, but this 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 an overdose, (10g) of Veronal, instead of the 0.5g that was prescribed.