Saturday, February 27, 2010

"The Northern Lights" by Lucy Jago

Summary: A biography of Kristian Birkeland, a Norwegian scientist in the early 20th century who discovered the cause of the aurora borealis.

Musings: Here are some reasons why it makes no sense that I picked up this book:

1. I know pretty much nothing about the aurora borealis.  Pretty lights in the sky, right?  And I've never really wondered.
2. I hate physics.  I took astronomy in college (lab science requirement), which was a gigantic mistake.  I couldn't even find the frickin' moon in my telescope.
3. I know nothing about Norway.  It's cold, right?  And, uh, they ski?  Uh...
    So considering my total lack of initial interest in the subject matter, I was surprised that I found the book compelling enough to finish it.  Personally, I was not especially interested by the science, although I imagine the book certainly would be of interest to physicists.  What did keep me reading, though, was the in-depth look at one man's single-minded pursuit of science and the relationship of that pursuit to Norway's politics.  Birkeland was a man of considerable intellect with an enormous amount of ideas, but like many genuises, his work was also a plague to him, and he rarely seemed happy.  The Northern Lights also gives the reader a unique view of Norwegian history, particularly as the country sought independence.  As I mentioned above, I know virtually nothing about Norway, and it was interesting to see how Birkeland's scientific endeavors were supported, in part, by a desire to bring prestige to the country.

    Like many authors of popular nonfiction pieces today, Jago delivers The Northern Lights in a narrative style which kept a relatively brisk pace but, for me, lacked intimate details and connections to the people.  Jago uses very few direct quotes from primary sources, and because of this, it's difficult to know what in the book is "fact" and what is artistic hypothesis.  Obviously she did extensive research, and there's a bibliography at the end, but her general omission of Birkeland's and others' direct voices created some distrust and alienation in me.  For this reason, I found her book much less compelling than the last biography I read, David Grann's The Lost City of Z, which succeeded in weaving primary sources and a narrative structure together.

    Because I was completely unfamiliar with all of the content of The Northern Lights, I learned quite a bit by reading the book, even though it was not an "enjoyable" read.  Considering Birkeland's greatest scientific contributions were on the aurora borealis, it would have been helpful for Jago to include some color photos of the spectacular phenomenon. Nonetheless, I would certainly recommend the book to people interested in science and the scientists who pursue research at all costs.

    ***This book qualifies for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge ("Up to You!" category).

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