The legacy of Kristian Birkeland (1867 – 1917)

This is a year for commemoration of Kristian Birkeland - one of our greatest researchers and innovators. 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 Petter Ottersen, UiO)

Together with a number of colleagues from UiO I am now in Tokyo to celebrate Birkeland’s achievements, in events generously hosted by the Norwegian embassy and the University of Tokyo.

Fridtjof Nansen wrote in his diary in the year 1900: “The great discoveries and progress are all, without exceptions, a result of research and studies which most people will characterize as unimportant and a waste of time.” Today, if we ask the average Norwegian what he or she associates with the name Kristian Birkeland the answer will most likely be fertilizers and Norsk Hydro. The invention that laid the foundation for Norsk Hydro was in many ways a result of Kristian Birkeland’s “unimportant” studies of the polar aurora and Earth’s magnetism.

Birkeland’s electromagnetic cannon

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. 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. Norsk Hydro was born - as a result of a failed experiment.

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."

Indeed, finding a way to bind nitrogen from the air was a great discovery and a timely one. 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 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.

Birkeland and the great challenges

The electromagnetic cannon must be seen as a by-product of Birkeland’s main line of research. Birkeland addressed questions that had puzzled scientists for centuries: what is the cause of the Aurora Borealis and the Earth’s magnetic storms? Birkeland made advanced laboratory simulations where he created the light phenomena called “artificial aurora” on a magnetized sphere (Terrella) in a vacuum chamber. The outcome of these studies was the first complete theory of aurora and magnetic storms. His model includes 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.

Birkeland’s travel to Tokyo

During the last five years of Birkeland’s life, he was fascinated with zodiacal light and moved to Egypt to study this phenomenon in more detail. Birkeland found the summers in Egypt too hot and longed to return to cooler Norway as summer approached in 1917. As the First World War was raging, he planned to travel via Tokyo, where he had close colleagues and friends.

In Tokyo he was warmly welcomed by Professors Nagaoka and Terada who invited him to give a guest lecture and helped arrange for him to work while staying in Japan. This is an excerpt of one of the letters that Professor Terada wrote to Birkeland (my retranslation from Norwegian):

Science College, Imperial University, Tokyo, Institute of Physics, May 31, 1917

I truly understand that you had a difficult time in Egypt, and this I regret. You are now amongst scientists who share a sense of brotherhood all over the world. You can rest assured that we all regard you as a world leading scientist and we are happy to have you here with us. ….If you should continue to feel unwell or anxious, please let us know at your earliest convenience. Professor Nagaoka and I will do what we can to make your stay here as comfortable as possible.

Yours sincerely

T. Terada

Birkeland was met in Tokyo with hospitality and generosity. But his life ended there – in a hotel not far from the university campus. This hotel has now been replaced by a restaurant with the same name – Seiyouken. Today the Norwegian embassy hosted a lunch in this restaurant - in commemoration of Kristian Birkeland.

After the war Birkeland’s ashes were brought to Christiania. On his tombstone is written (my translation): "He tied nitrogen from the air in the electric arc, he explored the nature of sunlight, the electric radiation of the sun and the magnetic field of the Earth." This stands as a succinct and apt description of the achievements of a great scientist.

Reflections on Birkeland’s legacy

The conference here in Tokyo has provided ample documentation of the enormous breadth and depth of Birkeland’s achievements. 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 aurora was not fully accepted until satellite observations in the late 60’s and early 70’s proved him right. And 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”. As Jøran Moen pointed out in his lecture on Birkeland, this statement would have fitted perfectly if one were to submit an application on dark matter research today.

Unique for his time, Birkeland combined theory with experimentation, simulations and calculations. His Terrella experiments stand as prototypical examples of the value of establishing good models. With the Terrella he brought space into the laboratory – no less.

Yesterday we signed an agreement in the Norwegian embassy here in Tokyo. Partner institutions are UiO, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and SIOS (Svalbard Integrated Arctic Earth Observing System). This agreement holds great potential and will serve to bolster and develop international collaborative research on the interaction between the sun and the earth's atmosphere. This endeavor is in the true spirit of Kristian Birkeland (1867 - 1917) whom we now have commemorated and celebrated here in Tokyo.



Alv Egeland: Kristian Birkeland: Naturvitenskapsmannen & industriforskeren

Birkeland will also be commemorated in Oslo, 13 – 16 June 2017

Publisert 7. apr. 2017 08:59 - Sist endret 7. apr. 2017 08:59
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