Now generally considered the realm of scientists, for eons the phenomenon used to be the subject of stories, myth and religion. ‘It is only in the last century that science has come up with a plausible explanation for the aurora and I was curious about the effect of such knowledge... does science overcome the purity of the experience?’
It shouldn’t because when it comes to aurorae we don’t know as much as we would like to admit. Our explanation for the phenomena is deeply flawed, as Windridge explains with subtle glee: ‘Often we are taught that the aurora is formed when particles from the sun are channelled by our magnetic field to the Earth’s poles where they interact with out atmosphere. However, this alone cannot explain the bright night displays. Solar particles – predominantly electrons – simply do not have enough energy to cause the vibrant colourful lights, so they must be accelerated somehow.’ Common explanations are obsessed over where the electrons are coming from, rather than the more curious processes that make them dance.
However, the remaining mystery gives license to more mythical apprehensions of the lights. It is in these anecdotes and legends that Windridge revels as she meets people who live in the Arctic, often at the frostbitten fingertips of human settlement. Here the lights have been child-catching spirits, departed souls playing football with a walrus skull, and the fires of medicine men in the sky. To Windridge, they are all of these, as well as gas atoms in the ionosphere being excited by accelerated electrons hundreds of miles above the ground. Throughout, she manages to bridge the gap between complex, subatomic physics and human wonder at the sublime.
This review was published in the June 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.