The commemoration of Kristian Birkeland continues
The commemoration of Kristian Birkeland continues. This is the speech I gave tonight, at the reception at Akershus castle.
Minister, ladies and gentlemen, fellow admirers and fans and family of Kristian Birkeland
On behalf of the organizing committee, consisting of representatives from Yara, Norwegian Space Center, Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology and the University of Oslo, I would like to thank the Minister of Education for hosting this reception and for taking part in the celebration of one of Norway’s greatest researchers and innovators.
This morning started with a great tribute to Kristian Birkeland. Our Prime Minister Erna Solberg entered a green tractor on the University Square – a tractor equipped with Yara’s nitrogen sensor on the top. Wearing virtual reality goggles she ran the tractor for minutes and thereafter exclaimed: “Now I have fertilized an entire field.”
This fleeting moment captured what this celebration is all about. It has to do with those rare occasions in history where excellent research and innovation – paired with serendipity and farsightedness – provide solutions to the most pressing questions of our time, and in so doing give rise to an entirely new industry.
Today, we talk about how to create an innovation ecosystem. We just have to look back to the dawn of the nineteen hundreds to see what such an ecosystem must hold: excellent basic research, creative investors, and a policy conducive to the establishment of new industries. And not to forget: the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit so emblematically embodied by Kristian Birkeland – professor at the University of Oslo and certainly one of the most excellent researchers and innovators of his time.
Birkeland’s life and work continue to fascinate and inspire, 100 years after his death. This is because he had an imagination and intuition that brought him ahead of his time, to the extent that his results often met with resistance and disbelief. His model of the polar aurora was not fully accepted until satellite observations in the late 60’s and early 70’s proved him right. His application for funding experiments on nuclear energy was turned down. Birkeland even anticipated the concept of dark matter when he wrote that the greater part of the material masses in the universe is found not in the solar systems or nebulae, but in “empty space”. Also unique for his time, Birkeland combined theory with experimentation, simulations and calculations – an approach we are striving for even today. With the Terrella (a magnetized sphere representing the earth) he brought space into the laboratory – no less. He was able to demonstrate how the polar aurora is generated. The outcome of these studies was the first complete theory of aurora and magnetic storms.
Birkeland’s innovative genius played out in full after his electromagnetic cannon failed and produced an electric arc. This electric arc was what was needed to harvest nitrogen from the air for the production of fertilizers – through what was named the Birkeland-Eyde process. A new industry was born, as a result of a failed experiment.
In the Aula today, we were told that Norwegians are surprisingly reluctant to accept the greatness of Kristian Birkeland and that he tends to be more famous abroad. I think there is more than a grain of truth to this. The following story tells it all.
When Bill Gates visited UiO about three years ago to take part in a debate on global health, he showed a keen interest in Birkeland and his electromagnetic cannon. "Make sure Birkeland’s cannon is on display in the Old Festive Hall when I come for the debate," was Gates' clear message to me. Thanks to the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology the cannon (a full-scale copy of it) was in place just in time for the event.
When the debate in the Old Festive Hall was in progress, the electromagnetic canon stood where it belonged. For it was the Old Festive Hall that was the scene of Birkeland’s failed experiment. Gates referred to the electromagnetic gun as a true symbol of fertilizers – “and fertilizers meant that the world could be fed." Gates claimed - correctly - that Birkeland’s electric arc helped sustain millions of people on earth. No wonder he insisted that that the electromagnetic gun should be in evidence when sustainability was on the agenda.
Norsk Hydro – now Yara – was founded on Birkeland’s innovation. But Yara continues to innovate in the spirit of Birkeland. We already heard about the nitrogen sensor, handled by our Prime Minister this morning. The vessel Yara Birkeland – described by CEO Svein Tore Holsether in his talk earlier today – is another example of excellent innovation. We were told that this will be the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship, with zero emissions. This strikes me as a bold and visionary project, so much in the spirit of Birkeland and so beautifully aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
On a personal note: I grew up with Birkeland – or with his legacy at least. Born in Kongsberg, I spent my childhood years in Notodden where my father worked not far from the site where the founders of Hydro, Sam Eyde and Kristian Birkeland, conducted their test operations for fertilizer production.
Not only did I grow up with Birkeland. As a rector of UiO I feel that I have spent eight years with Birkeland. Such is his influence and so important is his legacy even today. It is great to be able to honor him here this evening, together with you.
But let me add at the end: It is just such a terrible timing that Norges Bank as of this May removed Birkeland from the 200 banknote and replaced him with a cod. I wonder what Birkeland would have thought about this. The new economy will arise from the creativity and innovativeness of minds of Birkeland’s caliber. With due respect for the cod.
Thank you for your attention.