Kristian Birkeland and the Slow Dawn of Space Weather Understanding

Birkeland Lecture by David Southwood

Professor David Southwood from Imperial College, London gives the Birkeland Lecture at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in Oslo on 15 June at 6 pm. In 2017, the legacy of the physicist Kristian Birkeland still stands solid - 150 years after his birth and 100 years after his death. This lecture is one of many events during the Birkeland Anniversary 2017 that will take place 13-16th of June.

The University of Oslo, Yara, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and the Norwegian Space Centre are joining together for a great celebration of one of Norway's greatest scientists and innovator through the years.

Summary of the Birkeland lecture

Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917). Painting by Asta Nørregaard in 1906Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917). Painting by Asta Nørregaard in 1906

In the years just before its full independence in 1905, Norway produced some of its best known sons, Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Munch, Edvard Grieg, Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. 

Just as creative and remarkable in many ways was the scientist, Kristian Birkeland. He was the man who not only would have the key insight that would open up our understanding of how solar and earth environment directly interlink but also a man who believed in applying science to immediate problems. 

He was a polar explorer and yet also co-founder of what was to become the largest company in Norway, Norsk Hydro, as well as an inventor of popular renown. He died at 50 years of age, precisely 100 years ago. 

The auroral polar light displays in Northern and Southern hemispheres now are seen as the most dramatic visual feature of a whole new science called space weather. Birkeland would not have been surprised but nearly all his scientific contemporaries 100 years ago would have been amazed. 

Ironically, it would take another 50 years for his greatest insight that the polar aurorae were due to electrically charged particles hitting the upper atmosphere to become firmly proven by an American spacecraft and for his insights to be become generally accepted. 

Why did it take so long? Partly, it was due to having ideas almost before their time and partly it was due to prejudice by a scientific establishment who were rather fixed in their way of thinking.  I hope to make amends for what was largely a British establishment.  We'll explore what Birkeland found, why it took so long for him to be understood and most importantly, why he does really deserve to have his picture not only on the tail of a Norwegian airplane but also on the 200Kr banknote.


Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi
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The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters
Drammensveien 78
N-0271 Oslo, Norway
Telephone: + 47 22 84 15 00
E-mail: post@dnva.no
Web editor: Anne-Marie Astad
Design and technical solutions: Ravn Webveveriet AS