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 Kristian Birkeland

Kristian Olaf Bernhard Birkeland (13 December 1867 – 15 June 1917) was a Norwegian scientist. He is best remembered as the person whose theories of atmospheric electric currents elucidated the nature of the Aurora borealis. In order to fund his research on the aurorae, he invented the electromagnetic cannon and the Birkeland-Eyde process of fixing nitrogen from the air. Birkeland was nominated for the Nobel Prize seven times.

Birkeland was born in Christiania (Oslo today) to Reinart Birkeland and Ingeborg and wrote his first scientific paper at the age of 18. Birkeland married Ida Charlotte Hammer in May 1905. They had no children and, due to Birkeland´s preoccupation with his work, they divorced in 1911. Suffering from severe paranoia due to his use of Veronal as a sleeping aid, he died under mysterious circumstances in his room in the Hotel Seiyoken in Tokyo while visiting colleagues at the University of Tokyo.

Birkeland organized several expeditions to Norway´s high-latitude regions where he established a network of observatories under the auroral regions to collect magnetic field data. The results of the Norwegian Polar Expedition conducted from 1899 to 1900 contained the first determination of the global pattern of electric currents in the polar region from ground magnetic field measurements. The discovery of X-rays inspired Birkeland to develop vacuum chambers to study the influence of magnets on cathode rays.

Birkeland noticed that an electron beam directed toward a magnetised terrella was guided toward the magnetic poles and produced rings of light around the poles and concluded that the aurora could be produced in a similar way. He developed a theory in which energetic electrons were ejected from sunspots on the solar surface, directed to the Earth, and guided to the Earth´s polar regions by the geomagnetic field where they produced the visible aurora. This is essentially the theory of the aurora today.

However, fate intervened in the form of an engineer named Sam Eyde. At a dinner party only one week later, Eyde told Birkeland that there was an industrial need for the biggest flash of lightning that can be brought down to Earth in order to make artificial fertilizer. Birkeland"s reply was, "I have it!" There were no more attempts to sell the firearms company, and he worked with Eyde only long enough to build a plasma arc device for the nitrogen fixation process. The pair worked to develop the prototype furnace into a design that was economically viable for large-scale manufacture. The resulting company, Norsk Hydro, hugely enriched Norway, and Birkeland then enjoyed adequate funding for research, his only real interest.

The Birkeland–Eyde process is relatively inefficient in terms of energy consumption. Therefore, in the 1910s and 1920s, it was gradually replaced in Norway by a combination of the Haber process and the Ostwald process.

In 1913, Birkeland may have been the first to predict that plasma was ubiquitous in space. He wrote: "It seems to be a natural consequence of our points of view to assume that the whole of space is filled with electrons and flying electric ions of all kinds. We have assumed that each stellar system in evolutions throws off electric corpuscles into space. It does not seem unreasonable therefore to think that the greater part of the material masses in the universe is found, not in the solar systems or nebulae, but in empty space."

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