Magic? Science? or a little bit of both?


“Northern Lights, Yukon, Canada” sourced from flickr by Studiolit.

I’ve always wanted to see the Aurora borealis in person. Colourful lights filling the night sky above you, there are definitely worse sights to see. I remember when I was little and my dad was watching a documentary and suddenly the screen was filled with these beautiful lights. Now being like 8 and the time I just figured that was how the sky there looked no more information need. I also assumed that was where Santa lived hence the magical sky.  Fast forward a few years and my next experience seeing the Aurora borealis had me convinced that they were clearly the sign of some Harry Potter style wizards duels. What can I say, I was an imaginative child.

But alas it would seem that neither of these theories are quite right, even though they are clearly very scientifically sound.

So what is the Aurora borealis?

Well the Aurora borealis is actually only even called the Aurora borealis when it occur in the northern hemisphere, hence its alternative name the Northern Lights. When similar light displays occur in the southern hemisphere they are known as the Aurora Australis.

Since science has pretty much ruled out wizards’ duels and Santa’s magic as being responsible for these natural light shows, they have come up with a non magical explanation. Turns out that it’s all down to the sun and this just another effect it has on our planet.

There are charged particles which manage to escape from the sun at approx 1 million miles an hour. That’s 500 times the speed of a bullet. These particles are referred to as solar wind. When solar wind meets with the Earth’s atmosphere it distorts the magnetic field surrounding the earth, but that’s not all. As these solar wind particles meet our atmosphere they become excited once they collide with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere they produce the beautiful colours we see.

What influences the colours of the lights you ask …


“Northern Lights (1a)” sourced from Flickr by Greenzowie.

There are many amazing shades of colours that Northern Lights displays include. From pale shades of yellow and green, through to blue and purple and even red shades included in some of the rarer displays. Well the colour of the lights depends on which gases the solar winds collide with.  When solar winds meet oxygen gases a beautiful baby of yellow to green, these are the more common of the displays. The vibrant purple, blue and red displays are creating when solar wind collides with atmospheric Nitrogen.

Still thousands of people flock to see the dancing lights in the sky above them. No matter how consistent the science of the Aurora borealis is wonderfully no performance is ever the same. There is a beauty in this fact. That even knowing the science behind them cannot diminish the magic they hold.

2 Responses to “Magic? Science? or a little bit of both?”

  1. Kimberley Meyers says:

    I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights! And you’re right, regardless of the science behind it, there is something magical about the phenomenon. Is there a reason why these light shows only happen in certain areas on the planet?

  2. Tamara Meehan says:

    Nice 🙂 Great, clear, easy explanation behind a phenomenon I never knew the answer to! There’s also the australis lights in the south you see from Tasmania. That’s on my bucket list!