Misunderstandings: On aurorae and people

Sometimes, I get people from Germany visiting me up here in the North. It is a rather natural thing, that. I was born in Germany after all.

When you live in Andøya it may just happen that who people really visit is not you or any other «who» but «what»: Aurora borealis, the Northern Lights…

…which would explain why anybody (who doesn’t know how beautiful it can be even without aurora) wanted to travel to the Arctic during the dark period in Winter.

«See how it dances.» my uncle, for example, would tell me.

«It looks like that, yes.» I answer.

«You do sound a little condescending, when you say stuff like that, you know.»

He is right, of course. Even though he is the one doing the finger-pointing, he is right. Scientists sound condescending. We do. We have to make an effort not to sometimes. But then, of course, he could have asked why I would say «stuff like that».

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The answer is simple: What happens up there in the sky is much, enourmously much more intriguing than moving lights. What is more, with only a little actual interest my uncle would be able to get there, too, to where scientists are, to appreciate that very fact.

Strangely enough, what people consciously notice when they see aurora for the first time is that it seems to move, not that it is colourful. Why does it move?

The auroral light is due to collisions in the atmosphere between electrically charged particles and the air’s atoms and molecules. We only perceive the light to move because the collisions happen in such a progression as to give the appearance of doing so. They are basically nature’s light bulb chain. That is it.

Unless you continue by asking: What are those charged particles, and where do they come from? They are hydrogen atoms that have been ripped apart into electrons and protons inside the Sun.

In other words, that story, too, runs deeper than I suspect you suspect.

For in order to trace hydrogen to its origin, you will have to go back in time, all the way to what is called the recombination epoch. This is about 380 000 years after the Big Bang, when subatomic particles began to form, well, atomic particles. They did so since the universe became cool enough during that time to be able to do so. Nature is like that, I am afraid.

This happened around 13.4 billion years ago, which means, in a cosmological sense we are still talking a universe in its infancy. In other words, the hydrogen racing towards our Earth in ionized form as protons and electrons was created in the hot and dense plasma during the birth of the universe itself.

Let that sink in for a second.

Then think about where we started. My uncle and I simply looked at a greenish glow in the sky which apparently moved. We chose a question and more or less immediately ended up at the beginning of time and space. How did that work?

«See how it dances.» my uncle would tell me.

«It looks like that, yes.» I answer.

«You do sound a little condescending, when you say stuff like that, you know.»

«I know. I apologise.»

«No worries. Northern Lights must be so normal to you by now.»

I say nothing, just continue looking up. I can find a condescending answer to that remark another time – or never. For, really, there is only aurora.


Alexander Biebricher, Ph.D. is a scientist who now holds the position of Physicist and Chief Science Officer at the Spaceship Aurora Visitor’s Center at Andøya Space Center in Northern Norway. You can follow Alexander on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google +.

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