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"Will [human] eye ever penetrate the mysteries of Creation which are hidden behind this dazzling drapery of colour and light? Who will venture to answer!"
~ Sophus Tromholt, Under the Rays of the Aurora Borealis, 1885

Natural phenomenon
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.

Aristotle's 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.

Edmond Halley (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 Earth.

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.

thumbnail of Franklin's aurora diagram
Franklin's diagram of
atmospheric movement
click to see larger image

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site last modified: July 2003 maintained by Asahi Aurora Web Author