Bright Lights – Brief Article


THERE ARE surreal moments in the world of science that literally stop people in their tracks, overwhelming them with wonder. One of those moments will come to you if, late on a dark moonless night this summer, you’re driving down a remote country lane and notice something stirring in the heavens above.

You’ll stop the car, confused, and stare slack-jawed at a mysterious green light far away on the horizon. Then all hell will break loose. The sky will fill from side to side with a light show even a peyote popper cannot imagine. Red, green, white. blue: curtains of light, wisps of light, waves of light, balls of light, circles of light, spirals of light. And if you’re fortunate enough to figure out you’re witnessing the aurora borealis–before you jump to the conclusion that the world is coming to an end and you should drive home at 90 miles an hour to kiss the kids one last time–you’ll say to yourself: “My God. I had no idea the lights could be like this. I had no idea they move.”

That’s right. The most frustrating difference between print and film is that we can’t show you how this magnificent gift from the sun dances around the heavens. But we can show you some spooky photos Max Aguilera-Hellweg shot for us on pages 50 to 57. And author Karen Wright can take you into the hearts and minds of the patient scientists studying this phenomenon night after lonely, cold night in the Alaskan wilderness. And we can point out that this summer the aurora is likely to extend so far south that millions of Americans may get a chance to see how primitive peoples could easily have been scared out of their wits by events that scientists still find mysterious, but not inexplicable.

At Discover we witness a different sort of light show here every year when we begin to sort through the entries in our annual technology awards. The inventiveness, the brainpower, the imagination, the lights blinking on in the brains of America’s best and brightest scientists and engineers truly stop us in our tracks to wonder in a state of amazement no less intense than the one caused by seeing the northern lights for the first time. To whittle these entries down to nine finalists and nine winners is the ultimate definition of threading a needle so small it can’t be seen, with thread made of smoke. We even feel a little sad that we can present so few of them on the pages of this magazine. But go take a look at the winners. It’s a showing as awe-inspiring as the one nature dishes out in the heavens.

KAREN WRIGHT Wright had high hopes for a remarkable bit of R&R while reporting a story for Discover. “A scientist at the University of Alaska,” she recalls, “had mentioned these hot springs where you could sit and drink champagne in a hot tub in the middle of a cold Alaskan night and watch the aurora while your hair froze.” Unfortunately, she adds, “the hot tub never happened–I was working the whole time.” Of course, her dedication paid off (“Seeing the Light,” page 50). A contributor to Discover for the past 10 years, Wright has had her work appear in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. She is also writing a novel she describes as an “ecodrama,” set in Manhattan and the Mojave Desert.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Discover

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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