Some Inuit believed that the spirits of their ancestors could be seen dancing in the flickering lights. In Norse mythology the Aurora was a fire bridge to the sky built by the gods. But science tells us that the Aurora happens because of the Sun.
John Keats (somewhat famously) wrote the following lines in a poem he called Lamia:
Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.
Keats certainly had a way with words but I must completely disagree with him here. While mystery can certainly add to a narrative, unraveling a mystery in nature adds to its wonder in my view. I was far more fascinated to learn that “when charged particles from the Sun strike air molecules in Earth’s magnetic field, they cause those molecules’ atoms to become excited. The molecules give off light as they calm down.” Solar storms reach out and mingle with out Earth’s magnetosphere, creating the ultimate cosmic light show in our northern and southern skies. That fills me with wonder and awe.
Fire bridges and dancing ancestors offer an interesting narrative and one that I am sure inspired those that believed that to be the cause of the Aurora Borealis. But for me the fact that the Sun, the star that we owe our lives to, can paint these colors across our skies and that we can understand how is the truly inspiring tale. Solar storms can also knock out our satellites and effect our communication systems. Perhaps instead of feeling peeved when our cell phones fail, we could pause and remember all that the Sun gives to us.
We are in orbit around it, the Sun holds us in place not only in our Solar System but also within the Milky Way and the Universe at large. It warms us and makes plant life flourish. The Sun is our primary energy source, one of our many life forces. And one day, the Sun will die. In a little over a billion years, Earth’s oceans will boil away. In 3.5 billion years, our planet will resemble Venus and likely be lifeless. Before long, our mountains will melt. Will they really be ours anymore? I think not. The Sun will have claimed them before itself becoming nothing more than a cinder.
But for now, the Sun plays with the molecules of Earth and gives us awesome images to behold. Here are a few from National Geographic.