Article ID: CBB001022634

The Spectrum of the Aurora Borealis: From Enigma to Laboratory Science (2009)


The composition of the aurora borealis became a subject of scientific interest with the introduction of spectroscopy, but for a long time the aurora refused to reveal its secrets. After fifty years of research, the origin of the dominant green line of wavelength 5577 Å was still a mystery. Only in 1912 did progress finally begin to occur in the understanding of the aurora, a field of research which appealed in particular to Norwegian scientists. Prominent among them was Lars Vegard (1880--1963), who in 1923 suggested a new picture of the upper atmosphere and an explanation of the green line in terms of excitations of frozen nitrogen dust particles. Although apparently confirmed by cryogenic experiments, Vegard's theory was challenged by the Canadian physicist John McLellan (1867--1935) who in 1925, together with his postdoctoral student Gordon Shrum (1896--1985), reproduced the line in experiments with helium-oxygen mixtures. This is the story of how the enigma of the green auroral line was finally resolved and explained by the quantum theory of atoms, namely as a transition between two metastable states of oxygen. It is also the story of two of the period's leading specialists in auroral spectroscopy, their rivalry, and different approaches to the study of the northern light.

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Authors & Contributors
Kragh, Helge S.
Reaume, Geoffrey
Konno, Hiroyuki
Singh, Rajinder
Schröder, Wilfried
Hoffleit, E. Dorrit
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Annals of Science: The History of Science and Technology
Bulletin for the History of Chemistry
Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/Bulletin Canadien d'Histoire de la Medecine
Indian Journal of History of Science
Physics in Perspective
Science Edition
Cambridge University Press
Johns Hopkins University Press
McGill-Queen's University Press
Atmosphere (Earth)
Atomic, nuclear, and particle physics
Earth sciences
Birkeland, Kristian
Bohr, Niels Henrik David
Wood, Robert Williams
Ritz, Walther
Raman, Chandrasekhara Venkata
Lonsdale, Kathleen
Toronto (Ontario)
New York City (New York, U.S.)
London (England)
Polar regions
20th century, early
19th century
20th century, late
Presbyterian Church
International Polar Year (1932-1933)
International Polar Year (1882-1883)

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