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History of Astronomy – The Northern Lights: A historical perspective, by Tom Kerss – ONLINE

May 18, 2021 @ 7:00 pm 8:30 pm

Northern Lights

Every (pandemic-free) year, hundreds of thousands of people travel to arctic climes with the goal of witnessing the Northern Lights. It is a verified ‘must see’ natural wonder, which has cemented itself on every major bucket list. Many mysteries remain about the behaviour of auroras, but the major facts about their formation have been established. Yet, none of their magic has been eroded. A playful display of the Northern Lights remains an overwhelmingly wonderful sight, even for seasoned aurora-chasers. It is no surprise that, throughout history, they inspired so many creative legends and stories, not just limited to people native to high latitudes. 

In the ancient Greek age of natural philosophy, scrutiny into the origin of the Northern Lights was surprisingly prevalent, but constrained by a limited picture of the Earth. Much later, with the scientific revolution in 17th Century Europe, they were discussed extensively, and as knowledge about our planet grew, so too did our understanding of the intimate, unbroken relationship between it and its parent star. Yet, even as polar explorers ventured beneath the auroras, and physicists developed increasingly more sophisticated models for their origin, some aspects continued to puzzle scientists well into the space age.

This talk presents research into the history of the Northern Lights, collated for Tom’s upcoming Collins Astronomy book, Northern Lights: The Definitive Guide to Auroras, which is endorsed by the Royal Observatory. It is a follow-up to his best-selling books Stargazing (2016) and Moongazing (2018) and is due out in September 2021. We’ll see how the Lights were interpreted and studied throughout history, and how key breakthroughs have advanced our understanding of the space weather environment, as well as solar and terrestrial atmospheric physics.

Along the way, we’ll meet the important figures – some of whom deserve more credit than they currently receive – that unlocked the mysteries of this strange and beautiful phenomenon through ingenuity of thought and clever technology. The talk includes a wealth of remarkable imagery and video, including from some unexpected places!

Tom Kerss is a freelance astronomy communicator and space expert, author, astrophotographer and consultant. He holds an undergraduate degree in astrophysics and a postgraduate degree in space technology, and is a veteran of the Royal Observatory where he previously worked for more than six years. He is also the founder of Stargazing✦London – an online school for astronomy and space courses launching in 2021.

He is a resolute stargazer and avid aurora-chaser with many years experience travelling to some of the best places on Earth to observe the sky, but he lives in Greenwich where he spends most nights trying to push the boundaries of what it is possible to see and capture through the city’s intense light pollution.

Between writing books, consulting with brands and creatives, and teaching courses on astronomy and astrophotography, Tom publishes the regular stargazing podcast Star Signs, which helps thousands of listeners around the world to learn more about the sky’s highlights for the week ahead.

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