Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917): A truly creative mind

In April this year we commemorated Kristian Birkeland in Tokyo. This week we will celebrate him and his achievements here in Oslo. His life and work continue to fascinate, 150 years after his birth and 100 years after his death.

Kristian Birkeland (Photo: Ole Petter Ottersen, UiO)

Kristian Birkeland (Photo: Ole P. Ottersen)

The breadth and depth of Birkeland’s achievements are truly impressive. 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”. His statement would have been spot on if one were to submit an application on dark matter research today.

His hypotheses were forward-looking, and so was his approach to science and innovation. Unique for his time, Birkeland combined theory with experimentation, simulations and calculations – an approach we are striving for even today. His Terrella experiments stand as prototypical examples of the value of establishing good models. 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. His model included electric particles from the Sun as the source of energy, the interaction of the particles with the Earth’s atmosphere, and electric currents in space and in the upper atmosphere.

The electromagnetic cannon and birth of Norsk Hydro

The electromagnetic cannon was a by-product of Birkeland’s main line of research. Today this cannon stands as an emblem of innovation and serendipity.

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 Technical Museum the cannon (a full-scale copy of it) was in place just in time for the event.

So when the debate in the Old Festive Hall was in progress, the electromagnetic canon stood where it belonged. For it was in the Old Festive Hall where Birkeland should demonstrate to the world that it was possible to shoot with electromagnetism instead of gunpowder. The story is well known. The experiment was conducted in February 1903 and gave us the spark that led to the creation of one of our largest and most important industrial companies - Norsk Hydro, now Yara. For the gun shortcircuited with a spark and a deafening bang. It is said that Fridtjof Nansen’s white shirt was stained with smoke, as Nansen typically had seated himself outside the safety zone in the front row.

Birkeland realized that there was power and potential in the electric arc that was produced when the cannon short circuited. Prior to the demonstration, he had met with Sam Eyde, and the arc was what was needed to harvest nitrogen from the air for the production of fertilizers. A new industry was born, as a result of a failed Experiment.

Birkeland and the global challenges

Today we discuss the global challenges within the realms of climate, energy, poverty and health and are at a loss as to how to cope with them. In Birkeland’s time, there was a nitrogen crisis on a par with the climate crisis of today.

At the end of the 1800s the natural deposits of calcium nitrate were almost exhausted. It was literally a matter of life and death to identify alternative sources of nitrogen for fertilizer production. The electric arc made it possible to make use of the nitrogen in the atmosphere - a natural resource that is virtually inexhaustible. Through the Birkeland-Eyde process this resource could now be used for the production of fertilizers so as to meet the demand for food in a world with an ever growing population. Today the production of fertilizers has been taken over by Yara and the Birkeland-Eyde process is no longer in use. Yet, finding a way to bind nitrogen from the air was a great discovery and a timely one indeed.

So why was Bill Gates so interested in Birkeland and his cannon? In our brief conversation, prior to the debate, Gates referred to the electromagnetic gun as a true symbol of fertilizers – “and fertilizers meant that the world could be fed." Gates asserted that Birkeland’s electric arc helped sustain billions of people on earth. No wonder he insisted that that the electromagnetic gun should be in evidence when sustainability was the topic of debate.

Political repercussions and a failed Nobel

Alv Egeland, in his biography on Kristian Birkeland, recounts how Birkeland’s cannon created political repercussions: Councillor of State  Gunnar Knudsen told King Oscar II about the invention. After the king had been informed and had been present at a trial shot, he asked how far such a gun could shoot. “Birkeland says it can shoot as far as from Kristiania to Stockholm”, Knudsen answered. But when he saw how stern the king became, Knudsen was quick to add: “- and he says it is possible to shoot all the way from Stockholm to St. Petersburg.” Then the majesty brightened up.

Birkeland was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize, but never got it. There are many theories of why he never met with success. I assume Knudsen’s lapse did not do much to help.

Birkelandjubileet 13.-16. juni



Alv Egeland: Kristian Birkeland: Naturvitenskapsmannen & industriforskeren

My recent blog on the legacy of Kristian Birkeland:


Publisert 13. juni 2017 23:35 - Sist endret 14. juni 2017 10:17
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