Today (9 March) we moved to new accommodations from our family-style Gulenvegen apartment in Tromsø to a small “camping cabin” (among dozens of others) on the outskirts of of the city. It took two trips in our micro-Yaris to get everything moved. The photo (with yours truly at left, Duke in the center, and Will at right) was snapped by our host Cecilie on the balcony of the Gulenvegen house (see leftmost of three small images below). Our rooms were upstairs in her children’s (still youthfully adorned) rooms. We were more like paying informal house guests than formal renters.
Cecilie is the woman in the image below right with her friend – a charming linguistics professor from the University of Tromsø. She is a lawyer, world traveler, and the author of the children’s book “Troll Hunt” whose cover is depicted in the middle image below. Click on the image to learn more. We all bought copies of it for the children in our lives before our departure for the cabin. She is now writing a new book about the aurora.
Dogs Showers in Our Little Red Cabin?
Click to enlarge and read the unusual sign we found posted in the bathroom of our little red cabin. The sign gave us a good laugh and caused me to quip about whether my long-bearded companions should be permitted to shower without violating the spirit of the sign’s prohibition. On the other hand, I have more hair than either of my compatriots combined, but neither of them retaliated with this point….such kind and capable gentlemen they both are. While we certainly do get dog-tired on this expedition, we have not yet become dirty dogs.
In Cod We Trust?
Due to continued bad weather, our plan was to cozy up in the cabin for the evening where I would prepare a wholesome, fresh-fish dinner with the arctic cod that Duke and Will had purchased at the recommendation of our brilliant, blue-eyed friend Odd (see Post 3). The nutrient-rich waters along the coast of Norway are home to abundant fisheries of cod and other commercial species. Norway has one of the biggest fishing industries in the world! Ya-Ya sure…but a last minute check of the regional weather revealed that there might be a break in the overcast during aurora prime times out near the (by now familiar) Finnish border.
Thus we had to consider whether we should take the time for a sit-down dinner with Odd’s cod, or instead get on the road to chase the gaps in the cloud cover, thereby risking the spoilage of fresh fish in the cabin’s marginally functional refrigerator. Would the cod be there for us the next day? In cod we trust?
It was not an easy decision. The team discussed the pros and cons at length, particularly in light of our plans to get an early start on a longer, 400-kilometer trek southward into Sweden the next day (10 March). That journey would require many more hours of driving on mountain roads in difficult weather conditions. Ideally we would be well rested and well nourished for that.
Of course the outcome of our deliberations was to abandon our fresh cod dinner and as I begin to outline this post, we are zooming down the road in inclement weather to a place 100+ kilometers east of Tromsø to hunt for clear skies and photographically fish for northern lights. I just wolfed down some packaged, processed fish smeared on a piece of our favorite seedy bread from the no-frills supermarket REMA 1000. The top of my laptop now has streaks from errant tuna goop, but nothing to prevent me from continuing to write this post. Duke continued his relentless caloric stream of bananas and granola bars. Will provided the packaged tuna brought from the US, and he and I also grazed on REMA 1000 oranges and apples with the occasional banana that escaped Duke’s remarkable voracity for them.
Before we left the cabin, the guys had also pre-gobbled bowls full of re-hydrated “Beef Stroganoff” product – foodstuff I found distinctly unappetizing, and Ya-Ya, downright inedible. In such moments when a sit-down meal was not in the cards and extra energy was called for, I also tended to reach for my Isagenix protein bars and shakes in which the guys had no interest, but which kept my engine running very well in a high-nutrition way (thanks brother Jeff!)
Will a Coronal Hole Make Good Fishing for Aurora?
In addition to the possibility of timely gaps in the clouds near the Finnish border, some of our space weather websites had indicated the possibility that a “coronal hole” on the Sun was rotating into alignment with Earth and could lead to more active northern lights. This was a clincher for me in our decision making about whether to go out.
Coronal “holes” are places in the outer atmosphere (corona) of the Sun where the magnetic field lines are opened outward. This opened structure allows a much greater density of charged particles to stream away from the Sun. When a greater density of particles interact with Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, it is possible for the auroral lights to be enhanced. This is not as great an opportunity as a bona-fide Earth-directed solar storm would be for producing dramatic aurora, but as our new Norwegian friends often say while speaking their remarkably adept English: “Ya-Ya-Ya…That’s how it is.” I haven’t yet been able to discern whether this frequent expression among English-speaking Scandanavians marks a sentiment of santosha (contentment with what is) or of resignation. For us, perhaps it is a blend of both.
We’re here in the far north of Norway first and foremost for the northern lights. If we don’t go out, we have no chance of photographing them. If we do go out, there’s always a chance, however slim, of succeeding, even when the Earth and space weather reports are marginal. In other words, enjoying a relaxing, fresh fish dinner is a much lower priority compared to racing out to the Finnish border to fish for aurora, even if we know an abundant “catch” is unlikely.
Play Time in Tromsø
Yet…I do confess that I had been looking forward to a quiet, warm, dry night at our cabin with another hearty, nourishing meal to bolster our reserves. The combination of poor Earth weather and calm space weather had persuaded us to stay in during the past couple of nights, and we felt inspired to prepare some nice dinners and to do some daytime exploring of tourist sites in Tromsø. The images above show a pasta feast, replete with arugula salad and garlic toast, that we enjoyed on one of the last nights at the Gulenvegen apartment. Notice the cans of well-known Haakon beer from the Tromsø-based Mack Brewery. The six-pack cost us an outrageous 180 NOK = about $30!!
We also attended a late-night musical concert in the Arctic Cathedral, with the angelic voice of a frowning, young soprano. Her sullen expression could not erase the quality of her ethereal tone. Unfortunately, the high-cost concert was abbreviated to accommodate an incoming ship-load of tourists for a later performance. Ya-Ya…That’s how it is.
We also paid enjoyable daytime visits to the local Science Center/Planetarium and to the Polarium (polar aquarium). Like the cathedral, the architecture of these buildings was inventive. The Polarium is at left below. The Science Center/Planetarium at right.
In the science center I especially loved the musical climbing wall. Each time my hand or foot touched a hold, a gentle tone played. I could make music as I made my way across the wall. I felt the gurgling joy of a happy child as I played with that wonderful climbing wall. It was no substitute for the feeling that arises in response to witnessing the northern lights, but it was nonetheless a hugely welcome ray of light-hearted fun to illumine the sunless days.
The images below reveal some other joys of our “play time” at the science center (Vitensenter), although Duke mostly used the occasion as an opportunity to study new possibilities for exhibits back at Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City where he serves as the exhibit manager.
In the photo at left below I’m playing with a reaction-time interactive. The yellow sticks are held up by magnets on the red metal arc over my head. Each stick falls at a random time. The idea is to react quickly enough to catch it! Will’s reaction time behind the camera caught me at a successful moment. [Click to enlarge any image.]
In the center image above, Will is demonstrating the mechanical advantage of a pulley. He can easily pull himself up to the ceiling. We could wish that our urban Atlanta physics students would have an opportunity like this to experience what “mechanical advantage” means with their bodies instead of only reading about it in a textbook.
In the rightmost image, our 6-foot, 6-inch (~1.98 meter) Duke is literally “off-scale” in the body interactive after Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (a happy symbol of the conjoined art and science of our mission).
Connecting with Anne Bruvold at the Tromsø Planetarium
My space physicist friend and colleague, Dr. Pat Reiff of Rice University, had recommended that I connect with the Tromsø planetarium manager, Anne Bruvold, during our visit. Good advice! Anne was delightful and spent generous time meeting with us. Our connection included private presentations about the star knowledge of the indigenous Sámi people and also of the Vikings. In addition, we explored the possibility of making use of some of Duke’s hard-won all-sky (fish-eye) images on the Tromsø planetarium dome. These are the “jelly-fish” data (see Post 4) we’d harvested last time we went out fishing for aurora near the Finnish border. Anne so much appreciated the combination of expertise in photography and planetarium dome projection that our Duke brought to the conversation. It was truly awesome for me to see a couple of sample images on the dome, and to imagine the experience of immersion as well as the instructional possibilities when a smoothly morphing, all-sky, time-lapse video is running there. Hopefully all obstacles to working this out remotely can be overcome.
Pi in the Sky?
Anne Bruvold mentioned that one of the reasons she had more time for us was a cancellation of an after-hours meeting with some fellow knitters. Little did we know at the time that Anne is an accomplished ravelry artist, and you can browse samples of her designs here. I was especially delighted by Irrational Scarf, which also conjoins art and science. Well… you may need to be a bit of a Euro math nerd to love it. In spite of the usual comma where we would put a point, Americans could wear the scarf to help celebrate Pi Day on March 14th (Get it? 3-14? Thanks Kelly!).
But of course, for Europeans, March 14th is 14-3 so it doesn’t really work world-wide. However…. March 14th is also Einstein’s birthday, so the date can still work as an international geek-fest. Or…. Europeans and others could use 22/7 (July 22nd = Pi Approximation Day) since 22 divided by 7 gives a good approximation to this wondrous “irrational” number that goes on and on to infinite decimal places yet geometrically is just the simple ratio of the circumference to the diameter of every circle in the universe.
AAAAAAGH! Enough with the geek-speak already. Now for some visual and auroral relief. Does anyone else besides me perceive a “giant pi (π) in the sky” in the northern lights patterns below?
Rich Norwegian History of Science about the Aurora
We also met with Anne’s colleague Terje Brundtland, the lead engineer at the science center. Terje built a replica of the famous Terrella experiment that was originally constructed in the early 1900’s by Norwegian scientist and explorer Kristian Birkeland. The real Terrella (pictured with Birkeland below) offered laboratory evidence for how the northern lights could be caused by charged particles from space interacting with Earth’s magnetic field and colliding with the molecules of upper atmospheric gases. Birkeland’s theory of the aurora wasn’t confirmed until the late 1960’s using satellite observations. It is a classic case of a fringe idea that was ridiculed by mainstream scientists of the time, but that eventually came to be accepted as mainstream theory. Today, scientists use the term “Birkeland currents” to refer to the streams of charged particles that couple Earth’s magnetosphere to the upper atmosphere (ionosphere).
Terje’s replica of the Terrella is now on display at the Tromsø museum (which sadly we didn’t visit). Terje pointed out to us that Birkeland and the Terrella are enshrined on the 200 NOK (Norwegian Kroner) bill. What a good idea to feature notable scientists on a nation’s currency! Ironically, the name of Norwegian royalty (Haakon) was featured on the beer cans we’d purchased to accompany our special dinner (above). Perhaps one day famous scientists might also be deemed deserving of this dubious distinction! [NOTE: At about 6 NOK per US dollar, the 200 NOK Birkeland bill ($30-$35) would buy us a single six pack of Haakon beer].
Seeing the Stars – Sámi Style
Back to now-ness….As I write this paragraph, the guys are picking up from a futile attempt to deploy the cameras at a pull-off along the E8 to Finland. There are indeed episodic big holes of clear sky, but they close in as quickly as they come. Yet I am finding some joy, even without aurora, because the sky has been opening up long enough for me to perceive the three classical constellations that (thanks to Anne Bruvold) I now know help make up the Sámi constellation called Sarvvis – the elk, moose, or reindeer, depending on the storyteller.
The photo of aurora below was made on a previous night, contemporaneously with the “jelly fish-eye” images (see Post 4). Though we had no idea about the Sámi stars at the time, I have now gone back to mark the large, antlered mammal in the sky according to the sky map Anne shared with us. The W-shaped arrangement of stars (rightmost) comprise the constellation Cassiopeia and this represents part of the antlers. The front legs (center) are made up of what western astronomers call Perseus, and the hind legs (leftmost) are formed by Auriga. Please never you mind if these constellations are unfamiliar to you, just enjoy the image!
And so now… to my delight, I will never be able to see these constellations in quite the same way again. I look forward to sharing this new way for a reindeer to be in the sky with my godchildren, Arthur, Moira, and Alex with whom I love to spend Christmas. And Moira (you dog-sledding, cross-country skiing wonder of a teen woman), if you are still reading these posts, go ahead and share this with your brothers and parents (beloved Jan and Mike). We’ll look for these stars the next time we’re together in winter! They will be MUCH higher in the sky at more southerly latitudes where you live in Michigan.
I so much loved seeing familiar stars in a new way – through the eyes of Sámi culture – especially since the road on which we were traveling (E8) had been important to the Sámi as a reindeer sledding route. Moreover we were near a Sámi region of reindeer husbandry (see the E8 road sign at right which we had photographed on “Jellyfish” night after crossing the border with Finland). The languages on the sign (from top to bottom) are Finnish, English, and German.
From time to time during tonight’s (9 March) fitful excursion I could see other Sámi stars. Arcturus (on the opposite side of the sky from the antlered mammal) represents a Sámi hunter Fávdna. The three stars of Orion’s belt represent helpers on the hunt (Gállábártnit) which are dogs for some tribes (see the little green figures depicted in the lower left of the StarLab sketch of Sámi constellations below). Can you find these three stars in the real auroral image above? HINT: The three stars of Orion’s belt are mixed in with the trees in the lower left portion of the image.
Hmmmm…three “dogs” hunting in the sky…yes, like us! (Fortunately those Sámi star “dogs” don’t need showers like we do.) According to Anne, Viking star lore says that the three stars of Orion’s belt are fishermen. Yes…fishing in the sky is like us too!
I sure wish all those starry hunters and fishermen could have helped us with the northern lights. It’s now midnight. We’ve been chasing, stopping, and hunting the skies periodically along the E8 for a couple of hours now. There have indeed been some pretty big clearings, but all along they have rapidly closed, with spits of precipitation that would just make water drops on our lenses.
Stop and Go Aurora
So we’ve given up our fresh cod dinner and risked casting our cameras on the poles of their tripods in wettish weather, but there have been no detectable auroral lights to be fished or photographed tonight. So we are retreating the 100 km back to our our little red cabin. The only green and red lights in sight are the static ones provided by our familiar friend the E8 road construction traffic light. Sadly we are missing the art and soul of dancing aurora in the sky here on the Northern Lights Highway.