AURORA: In Search of the Northern Lights by Melanie Windridge

AURORA: In Search of the Northern Lights by Melanie Windridge
01 Jun
2016
Renowned plasma physicist, Melanie Windridge, runs rings around the northern hemisphere in her new book. From Sweden to Svalbard, northernmost Canada to Scotland, she chases the illusive but immortal northern lights in search of the perfect aurora.

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.

Click here to purchase Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights by Melanie Windridge from Amazon

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

LATEST HEADLINES

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in REVIEWS...

Books

The dreadful pandemic of 1918, writes Laura Spinney, ‘engulfed the…

Books

Those of us who enjoy good travel writing know that…

Books

‘I look around me and I see a world populated…

Books

Convergence has long been a talking point within evolutionary science.…

Books

At its core, Thomas’ book is about a big hole…

Books

I’m not sure how much of a market there is…

Books

Watling Street connects Dover to Anglesey. Once a meandering track,…

Films

An epic journey alongside the nomadic crew of the Infinity…

Films

Vice President and climate action advocate Al Gore returns with…

Films

A new Netflix documentary investigates the dire state of the…

Books

After two years, you’d probably think it nigh on impossible…

Books

Not for intrepid travel writer Norman Lewis the melancholy tea…

Books

Twenty-year-old Nigel Halleck – Kief Hillsbery’s many-times removed uncle –…

Books

Jason Hickel’s bold book is full of stark facts and…

Books

Bridges are more than just a means of connection, writes…

Exhibitions

A wildlife exhibition in central London is displaying huge artworks…

Reviews

Exploring ancient Japan in a serene game of tactical beauty

Exhibitions

With a blue whale skeleton due to be unveiled in…