The aurora has intrigued philosophers and scientists, among them Aristotle,
Descartes, Goethe, Dalton, and Benjamin Franklin. Early thinkers attempted
to explain the aurora as a phenomenon rather than a miraculous or superstitious
event. An early discourse on the aurora appears in the 13th century Norwegian
work The King's Mirror, in which a prince interviews his father,
the king, on various topics including the northern lights.
book Meteorologica and Seneca's
Questiones Naturales both attribute the aurora to rips in the sky.
Other early thinkers wondered if it was reflected firelight from the edge
of the world, sunlight reflecting off arctic ice or ice crystals high
in the sky.
In 1778, Benjamin Franklin
pondered the electrical potential of clouds as the cause of the aurora.
While his auroral theory doesn't hold up, his description of the movement
of water vapor through the atmosphere is remarkably modern.
(discoverer of Halley's Comet) saw an aurora in 1716 and was inspired
to publish his theory. He noted that the aurora aligns with Earth's magnetic
field lines and hypothesized "magnetic atoms" moving through
Not until the middle of the 19th century did scientists begin to make
headway in the study of the aurora. Yet there remain many unanswered questions
about it. Indeed, the aurora has provided one of the most challenging
problems encountered in modern science.