Whilst perusing the Radio Times yesterday* I was pleasantly surprised to come across an article on "Joanna Lumley in the Land of the Northern Lights". This show was broadcast last night on BBC 1 at 9pm (it can be seen on iPlayer for a week).
It tells of how it has long been an ambition of Ms. Lumley's to see the Aurora and shows her achieving said ambition in the frozen Norwegian north.
Along the way she got to see reindeer herding, fish drying, fjords, the ice hotel and sunrise at the Svalbard Archipelago. All in all it was highly enjoyable as a bit of Sunday night entertainment.
Just to be clear over one point. When talking to the chap who pretty much owns Å in the Lofoten islands (16:10 into the show) he says that to see the Aurora it must be colder than it is.
Just to be clear whether the aurora occurs or not has absolutely nothing to do with how cold it is on the ground.
Nothing at all.
However, there is a good reason why it being cold helps to see the Aurora: clouds.
Norway is a country prone to rain and snow and with rain and snow come clouds. These are not helpful if you want to see the aurora flashing away well above them. However without the warming cloud layer, the temperature can plummet. I have been in Norway where one day it is 2° and pissing down and the next day the clouds move on and the temperatire drops to a pleasant -10° or less (it feels warmer as the humidity disappears).
Thus the colder it is the more chance you will actually see aurora if it is occurring.
I was particularly pleased to see the EISCAT radars (43:10 into the show)! They were not mentioned by name but the crew obviously payed a visit to the site in Tromsø and took some brief footage:
The city of Tromsø boasts unrivalled credentials in studying the auroraThis is true but remember that those radars also belong to us (at least until 2013).
Prof. Truls Hanson of the Tromsø Geophysical Observatory had a brief go at explaining exactly what causes the aurora. He made a small booboo by drawing the magnetosphere aligned with the Earth's rotational axis rather than the magnetic axis but we shall forgive him.
Ms. Lumley, after professing that she was starting to panic about the complexity of the explanation then summed it up thus:
...but I do now understand that the Earth is a giant magnet and its North and South poles attract the electrically charged particles towards them with spectacular results
which I guess is close enough for a show that was about the beauty and grandeur of the visible phenomenon and not a delve into the science.
Joanna got to see quite a spectacular display and was quite overcome. I have been upto Tromø a number of times on experimental campaigns and I can honestly say I never tire of watching the aurora.
It is quite fantastic.
I have stood in just a T-shirt in -10 degrees and watched, hesitating to dive inside for warmer clothes in case I miss something.
There is nothing quite like it and it really is indescribable.
We can talk about ribbons and curtains, we can show photos and movies that give a glimpse but that does nothing to truly convey the experience.
Until you are there, breathing in the cold air, feeling the hairs in your nostrils freeze yet not caring because you are confronted with a shifting, dazzling display that silently and majestically fills the sky, well, only then will you really get it.
Knowing how they work and what is really going on does not diminish the beauty, for me it intensifies it!
Understanding this process and the related effects has direct influence on our lives. I can make the case for how important this work is in terms of the economy and our daily lives (and indeed this case has been well articulated recently) but in reality I care about it because I want to know how it works!
It is the demand of wanting to know, to understand, that drives science forward, not spin-off technologies - they are just bonuses. If you think they are the important thing then you are not a scientist and you lack understanding of how the bulk of scientific discovery has progressed.
For me, in this age of tenuous funding and poorly thought through decisions it boils down to a simple point. As a civilized race how do we justify our ignorance of the things that go on all around us and are such an important part of our home? How can we ever hope to understand what goes on with other planets if we leave the job here on Earth half done?
I love what I do and it really excites me and it has the capability to excite many others. I just feel a little sad that some people fail to see this and that my time working with this wonderful phenomenon may soon be drawing to a close.
*That would be the one where Brian Cox suggested that if you thought the LHC was going to end the world then you were a twat.