What do you see in the sky at night? Rena Dam and Ryan Geertsma look at something amazing - the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights. They look at the origin of the Northern Lights, and stories from around the world.
Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Rena Dam.
And I’m Ryan Geertsma. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.
Picture a dark black sky. Suddenly, a large line of light appears. It looks like someone cut through the sky with a knife. The light shines through the opening.
Now, the light begins to move. It gets softer. It starts to look green in colour. The lines of light move around the sky. They look like they may touch the ground very far away.
Then, a burst of light appears! There are more colours now. They look like rays of sunshine all over the sky. The lights are changing very fast. They form a large curtain. The curtain moves. It looks like it is dancing. The lights dance away back into the dark black sky.
These lights in the sky are called the Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights. Today’s Spotlight is on these Northern Lights.
Pierre Gassendi was a famous scientist and philosopher in the early 1600s. He was the one who named the Aurora Borealis. This name comes from Ancient Roman stories. Aurora was the name that Romans gave to the goddess of the dawn - the rising of the sun. The second half, Borealis, is named after the north wind. So in English Aurora Borealis means “the dawn of the north.”
If you live in the Northern part of the world you may have seen the northern lights before. They also appear in the far south. There they are called the Aurora australis. The Northern Lights appear in many colors. People most often see green or red. The colour is different depending on how far north or south you are. The Northern Lights also look different at different altitudes - they look different high up in the mountains than at sea level.
But what are the Northern lights? What causes them? People have been wondering about this for years. The Northern lights are a part of folk culture in many countries. People around the world have traditional stories that explain the Northern lights. Here are a few of them:
During the Viking period, people thought that the Northern Lights were images of young women who were dead. Other people believed that the northern lights were signs of huge fires in the north. And other people thought that it was God lighting up the cold, dark parts of the world.
Inuit people believe that the lights are the land of the dead. They believe that dead friends in this land try to connect with living people. They think that this is what is happening when the lights change very fast.
The lights often change shape and colour. The Scots call them "merry dancers" because of this movement. Some Native Americans believe that they can connect with spirits of the dead by whistling at the lights.
Danish people have a traditional story about the Northern Lights. They say that a group of large white birds called swans once flew too far north. The swans got caught in the ice. They moved their wings up and down, flapping to get free. Every time they flapped their wings, they made images in the sky. These images became the northern lights.
But not every country had a nice story about the Northern Lights like the Danish. Some cultures believed that the Northern Lights represented evil. They were afraid of the lights. They thought the lights were a terrible force. And many people believed that the Northern Lights caused natural disasters, like earthquakes or floods.
These traditional stories are very interesting. But there is a scientific cause of the northern lights - the Sun!
Sometimes there are storms on the sun. These storms release a cloud of solar particles into space. The solar particles are made up of atoms that have a magnetic charge. They are full of electric forces.
Some of these magnetic solar particles come near to the earth. When they do, they are pulled in by the earth’s magnetic field. The magnetic field pulls the particles to the two magnetic poles on the earth: the North Pole and the South Pole.
The Northern Lights appear when the solar particles crash into the gas of the earth’s atmosphere. More solar particles make the lights bigger and brighter. In certain years, the sun has more storms. During these times, the northern lights can be seen from farther away. They may also be larger than usual. Rachel VanderVeen lives in Northern Canada. She says that the year 2012 had many solar storms. She tells Spotlight what happened:
“My husband does not often run. But one day he was walking home from school when the northern lights began. They moved across the dark sky in many colours. Even with the light from the town, they were amazing. Usually, we see the Northern Lights in bright green. But that day the colours made my husband run to find me. The lights were pink, purple and orange. We have lived in the north for many years now. That was the first time we have seen so many bright colours.”
You can see why so many people believe that the Northern Lights are special. People travel from all over the world just to see the Northern Lights. But it is difficult to capture such an amazing sight. Some people spend days taking pictures of the lights. Other people try to describe the northern lights in words. Today’s program ends with a part of a poem about the Northern Lights. It is called ‘The Aurora Borealis’ by S. Moore:
“The Aurora Borealis or northern light
With its movements so strangely bright,
Moving and dancing along the sky -
A picture of beauty to please the eye.
How sweetly the shining particles fly!
How quickly the flashes of light in the sky!
You would think the young angels had gathered in crowds
To play hide-and-seek through the golden clouds,
Let wise philosophers search out the cause,
And tell me the Science of Nature's laws;
And how these magnetic rays of light
Enrich the north of a frosty night.
So let the stories be what they may,
I love to look on the bright display
Of the ever moving, changing hues,
Seen in these grand but short lived views.”
The writers of this program were Sara DeKoster and Rena Dam. The producer was Rena Dam. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called, ‘Northern Lights’.
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