Kristian Birkeland

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Kristian Olaf Birkeland (13 December 1867 – 15 June 1917) was a Norwegian scientist. He is best remembered as the person who first elucidated the nature of the Aurora borealis. In order to fund his research on the aurorae, he invented the electromagnetic cannon and the Birkeland-Eyde process of fixing nitrogen from the air. Birkeland was nominated for the Nobel Prize seven times.[1][2]


Life and death

Birkeland was born in Christiania (Oslo today) and wrote his first scientific paper at the age of 18.

Birkeland married Ida Charlotte Hammer in May 1905, they had no children and due to Birkeland's work, they finally divorced in 1911.[3]

Suffering from severe paranoia due to his use of Veronal as a sleeping aid, he died under mysterious circumstances in his room in the Hotel Seiyoken in Tokyo while visiting colleagues at the University of Tokyo. A post-mortem revealed that Birkeland had taken 10g of veronal the night he died, instead of the 0.5g recommended. The time of death was estimated at 7am on 15 June 1917.[1] Some authors have claimed that he committed suicide[4].


He organized several expeditions to Norway's high-latitude regions where he established a network of observatories under the auroral regions to collect magnetic field data. The results of the Norwegian Polar Expedition conducted from 1899 to 1900 contained the first determination of the global pattern of electric currents in the polar region from ground magnetic field measurements. The discovery of X-rays inspired Birkeland to develop vacuum chambers to study the influence of magnets on cathode rays. Birkeland noticed that an electron beam directed toward a magnetised terrella was guided toward the magnetic poles and produced rings of light around the poles and concluded that the aurora could be produced in a similar way. He developed a theory in which energetic electrons were ejected from sunspots on the solar surface, directed to the Earth, and guided to the Earth's polar regions by the geomagnetic field where they produced the visible aurora.

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