Aurora Borealisaustralis Understanding the Northernsouthern Lights

The cosmos; an infinite mysterious anomaly capable of creating the most beautiful things human eyes have ever seen. The most prominent of which are stars. It is astonishing that our sun provides us a life often taken for granted-and we do not yet even understand it entirely. We can only describe its current and possible predicted behavior, expected life cycle, interactions, and appearance based on distant varieties of photography and by understanding more worldly occurrences. Aside from the sun providing us with our daily energy needed for survival, it is also capable of some of the most uniquely vivid images one will ever see. For example, while taking a walk, a person may gaze up the northern or southern night sky and be taken aback by a maelstrom of dancing color-the Northern or Southern Lights; also known as Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis. Various people would see aurorae as an insignificant occurrence without giving it any thought. I, however, am perpetually trying to quench my thirst for understanding the unfathomable through applying my worldly knowledge of physics to the surrounding world and beyond.

The first steps to understanding the Northern and Southern Lights are to understand the sources of the ingredients for this colorful light show. First, we will briefly revert back to grade school science class: envision a long, straight bar magnet. It has a South and North Pole. Like poles repel while opposite poles attract. For the purpose of keeping the explanation short-we will imagine a magnet as being made of smaller particles that can also be thought of as tiny magnets, all pointing in the same direction. Magnetism is the result of a flowing electric current causing an electric field that causes the particles to arrange themselves uniformly to collectively form a larger, ideally uniform magnet with a magnetic field that flows perpendicularly outward from the tip of the North pole in a curved path to the South pole, where it enters the tip of the south pole perpendicularly. The field lines are the most concentrated at the poles and gets progressively less concentrated as the distance from the pole increases. Now that we have an elementary understanding of a magnet and its corresponding field, we can think of the earth in terms of a massive magnet. Most junior high science classes will demonstrate the basic workings of a simple electromagnet. Simply taking a wire, coiling it around a piece of metal and connecting it to a battery will provide you with a weak, basic electromagnet. As you know, the earth is a hardened sphere with a molten core containing swirling molten materials. The immense heat of this causes the electrons in the materials to swirl freely about along with the swirling molten material-the first building block of an electromagnet. Since there is much more metal encompassed by these swirling charges, it acts as a giant electromagnet. This “electromagnet” has field lines originating from near the North and South poles Earth. Although, the South magnetic pole is located near the North geographic pole and the North magnetic pole is located near the South geographic pole.

The next step to understanding this feat of nature understands the behavior of charged particles. Envision a tiny charged particle traveling at an arbitrary speed into a magnetic field. As long as the particle is traveling in a direction not parallel to the magnetic field lines, it will take on a circular or helical motion, depending on its initial direction. The immense temperature of the sun is fueled by a fusion reaction within. Fusion is the act of the nuclei of atoms “fusing” together in a reaction to create other, more massive elements. I, personally, speculate that the nature of the fusion reaction could possibly be the origin of solar winds-although the scientific community is unsure of their cause. These “winds” are the emissions of charged particles (both positive and negative) originating from our sun. As these particles pass near the magnetic poles of Earth, a majority begin to move in a helical or circular path while colliding and exciting and energizing nearby gases. The result of this phenomenon is very similar to a fluorescent light; the gases inside of the fluorescent bulbs are excited enough to begin to emit light. Different gases emit different light frequencies, resulting in different colors; thus, causing the divine light show in the Northern as well as southern skies. On occasion, providing a scientific analysis of any phenomenon can often sour a once nostalgic thing-however the mere fact that objects and forces interact in such a way to provide magnificent phenomena such as this can be an existential part of their beauty.