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Thinking on science and the aurora borealis

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Like many humans, I’m fascinated with the auroras, named borealis in our northern latitudes, the pulsating sheets and streaks of light that we may see if we’re lucky or persistent enough. I receive emails from spaceweather.com about upcoming solar events and on Monday I received an email that said: “GEOMAGNETIC STORM PREDICTED: On Nov. 6, Earth will cross through a fold in the heliospheric current sheet–a vast system of electrical currents that ripples through interplanetary space…a fast-moving stream of solar wind is expected to engulf our planet, sparking geomagnetic storms on the 7th and 8th.”

We’re crossing through a fold? Sounded like something out of “A Wrinkle in Time”, so I clicked on the highlighted “heliospheric current sheet” to learn more. It said, “The heliospheric current sheet separates regions of the solar wind where the magnetic field points toward or away from the Sun. The complex field structure in the photosphere simplifies with increasing height in the corona until a single line separates the two polarities at about 2.5 solar radii. That line is drawn out by the radially accelerating solar wind to form a surface similar to the one shown in the graphic.” Raise your hand if you understood that. Be honest, now.

The graphic drew me in: it showed soft, deep, spiraled curves, like in a pompadour favored by Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner in the 1940’s. For you word buffs, the updo was named after King Louis XV’s mistress, the Marquise da Pompadour, in the mid-18th century and was worn in wigs by both men and women. So we’re traveling through a cosmic pompadour.

Scientific descriptions of intriguing phenomena can make my teeth ache because I want so badly to understand what they mean, and I ask myself, “Why didn’t I take more science classes when I had the chance?” Well, actually, I do know a couple of reasons. Mr. Tilden (a pseudonym), my junior year high school chemistry teacher, was less than adequate, very close to retirement, and threatened by students smarter, or at least more clever, than he was, which meant most of us. So, of course, we played pranks and mocked him; yes, even me, the perennial good girl. He got so upset when I innocently whispered a question to my neighbor that he yelled at us, threw his arm out in a dramatic gesture, hitting the chalkboard with his wrist so hard, his watch crystal exploded in a cloud of sparkling dust–and he pretended nothing had happened. He didn’t like that I had to leave his lab for occasional Student Council meetings, and he liked it less when I told him that the other chemistry teacher had offered to help me after school. I thought he’d be glad I was making up lost lab time without bugging him, but he didn’t want to help me, and he didn’t want anyone else to, either. To compound matters, I had the class clown as a lab partner. He got a kick out of tossing together whatever chemicals were on hand, just to see what happened. He never blew us up but neither did we learn much.

At the time, I was more intrigued by Mr. Tilden’s behavior than by the interactions of chemicals in a test tube; his lack of rapport with his students or disinterest in teaching creatively surprised and disappointed. His enmity toward me was puzzling; as a good, conscientious student, I was used to being regarded favorably by my teachers. We were all harmed by his uninspired teaching of a fascinating subject that should have had us on the edge of our lab stools, eager to explore and learn. As it was, we were just perched, counting the minutes until the end of class. We were given a poor foundation for future classes that would have benefitted from a better understanding of chemistry and basic scientific principles, such as physics, which I simply avoided. In more recent years, I again lamented my deficient comprehension of all things chemical when I started creating and firing with pottery glazes. Alumina, silica, fluxes, molecular weights? Oh, my. I did take a weekend intensive in the chemistry of glazes for potters, gaining a bit more understanding, but it was skimming a tablespoon of soup off the top of a rich, nutritious bowlful, and I hungered to digest more. In another effort for left-brained enlightenment, I found a promising book titled “Physics for Poets”, but it was quickly beyond me, too.

In any event, my natural inclinations took me in other directions at an early age. While I considered possible careers as a veterinarian, doctor, lawyer, or business woman, I always leaned in the direction of studying people: psychology, sociology, anthropology, and child development. All those -ologies attempt to observe and explain human behavior while literature, another favorite of mine, wraps up the whole kit and caboodle with many variations on the dramas of our inexplicable species.

In spite of decades of observation, reading, analyzing, interacting with, writing about and attempting to understand people, we remain perplexing creatures who can surprise and delight with unbounded generosity and courage or confound with thoughtlessness and malice. When the latter occurs, that’s when I yearn for a “hard” science to give me some answers I can rely on. Where are my formulas of carbon chains to explain deceit? Where is my π r2 to reveal the shape of a psyche? I have no doubt there are legions of scientists and bankers scurrying to find refuge in their laboratories and counting rooms when perplexed by a spouse or betrayed by a friend or colleague.

As we have seen, time and again, many theories brought forward through “hard science” have later been proven wrong as more is learned, but they provided some reassurance and a beacon forward at the time. Poets and philosophers also created stories to explain our own behavior and the world around us, sometimes foreseeing the future quite clearly. The aurora borealis and aurora australis have inspired many such myths.

The Mandan of North Dakota thought the northern lights were fires where their dead enemies simmered in enormous pots. The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin had a friendlier vision of torches used by friendly giants to spear fish at night. An Algonquin myth says Nanahbozho, creator of the Earth, traveled to the north after he finished creation and built large fires to remind his people that he still thinks of them.

The Salteaux Indians of eastern Canada and the Kwakiutl and Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska thought the auroras were dancing human spirits while Eskimos who lived on the lower Yukon River thought they were animal spirits, especially those of deer, seals, salmon and beluga. The Finns said the lights were caused by a mystical fox that threw sparks into the sky with its tail while the Chinese saw dragons. Some Russians thought a fire dragon came out of the sky at night to seduce women whose husbands were away. Swedish sailors thought the lights were reflections coming off large schools of herring, forecasting a good day of fishing ahead. A 1992 TV episode of Northern Exposure created its own myth, portraying Japanese tourists visiting Cecily, Alaska, hoping the Northern Lights would aid fertility and give wisdom to any child conceived.

Even though our minds hold the scientific explanation that electrons from the sun interact with the gas particles in the atmosphere, producing light, our hearts dance with the pulsating mystery, lifting us a bit higher, helping us feel that perhaps our feet are not quite so mired in the clay. This week auroras have been observed as far south as Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, and should our skies clear, we’ll also have a peek into the mystery as we travel through the fold. Are you watching?

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