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Kristian Birkeland - The Almost Forgotten Space Scientist

Physicist Kristian Birkeland’s legacy still stands strong - 150 years after his birth and 100 years after his death. He is regarded as the leading scientist and inventor in Norwegian history. Kristian Birkeland was the first scientist to explain that the sun was the source of the northern lights and founded much of today’s modern space research. He was also the man behind the fantastic invention that enabled the making of artificial fertiliser by harvesting nitrogen from the air. The discovery was the basis for the foundation of Hydro and turned out to be extremely important for the food production around the world at that time. Hydro (today called Yara) is still the world’s largest fertiliser company operating production in more than 50 countries. 

Birkeland’s theories about the northern lights and electrical currents in the atmosphere met great opposition among internationally renowned scholars such as Lord Kelvin and Sydney Chapman. It took over 60 years before one could confirm Birkeland’s theories when satellites became available and observed solar wind particles and detected electrical currents which we today call Birkeland currents. However, in 1994, Birkeland was deservedly honoured. His portrait was chosen for the front side of the Norwegian 200-kroner banknote and he now also features on the tail of a Norwegian Airlines plane. This lecture is a tribute to one of the greatest scientists in space research. It includes spectacular images and video of the Earths most amazing light phenomena - the Northern Lights.

Illustrasjon Hanne Utigard. Nordlysfoto: Yngve Vogt. Birkelandbildet: Ludvig Forbech-MUV /UiO

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