“In order to visualise magnetic field lines, nothing beats iron fillings – oh? How time flies! Well, next time, I’ll show you properly how it works.”
My teacher had just shuffled the little box under the overhead projector as the bell rang. A magnet was glued into the middle of that box, which consisted of Plexiglas. I remember seeing how some iron fillings aligned in arcs around the magnet. This was easy stuff for me at that point. I was good at physics. Well, not in any deep sense of the word, I struggled with the maths, but I was good at seeing how things fit together.
Like the rest of my classmates, I instantly grabbed my stuff and ran outside. On my way out, I fell in step with my buddy Tommy. Our footprints appeared in sync in the newly fallen snow.
“Iron fillings!” he said. “Sure glad that bell rang.”
“Well.” I said. What else was there to say? I grabbed my bike with its spike tires. Tommy stopped. He turned to me and pointed.
“Look! Got a flat tire.”
“Oh, man!” I said.
“I’ll fix this!” Tommy said. Tommy always fixed things.
He set about looking for stuff he could use to help me get going. I had no idea what he wanted to do, I swear, until he had finished. What he had built when he had finished was a contraption right out of an ACME cartoon: A broomstick, which he had stolen from the janitor’s office, held up two pieces of plywood from the junkyard behind the school. Onto these pieces, he had fixed both his and my bicycle in such a way that the flat tire hung in the air.
“Let’s take that baby for a ride!” he exclaimed, his eyes beaming. “You in the back. I’ll steer. Hop on!”
We did get out of town, in fact, and onto the dark land road towards our own village behind the next hill, technically, at least. We ended up standing two feet outside the old town gate looking at the heap of metal and wood in front of us.
“My bike still works.” Tommy said. “Not sure about yours.”
“Mine didn’t work to begin with, Tommy.” I said.
I felt how Tommy became angry, at himself, at the snow, the trees, the whole landscape and nature around him.
“This f… thing should’ve worked!” he said to himself.
Standing in the shadow of the gate, I could not follow his temper. I had started looking up. Above me, aurora raced down in straight arrows, one next to each other, more of them than I could count.
“Wonderful!” I said.
“I’ve read about `em, you know.” I continued.
“Ok.” Tommy said absent-mindedly.
“The lights got something to do with the Sun and a wind of sorts.”
Tommy took a deep breath and stepped over into the wall’s shadow beside me.
“What are you babbling on about?”
“Dunno much about `em, really. But I’ll find out, I can tell you that.”
I am not sure how we got home that night. After this point, my memories are a little blurry. But you know what? I really did find out!
As I write this, I have become a physicist. I turned out to be, well, somebody who sucks at maths for sure, which is not good in a physicist, but I did get a Ph.D. You can check out some of the work I have done here. Strangely, you will find it to be rather maths-heavy.
I know deeply about aurora now. I know enough about it to tell you what happens in under a minute.
I turn around and look at my seven-year-old son. He fiddles around with the small camera he got for his birthday. It is not quite good enough to take pictures of the aurora above us. However, I love that he tries. Why would he listen to me tell him he should not?
I click on the little button on the remote for my own camera and wait for it to finish collecting light for its image.
He runs over to me, making the boards of the back porch of our house vibrate. The image on my camera gets blurred, but I do not notice that at once. He takes up all my focus:
“Dad, look at this!”
He shows me his camera. One of the images has a little smudge of green colour in it. You cannot see much, but one thing is pretty clear: Something is moving downwards. He lifts his eyes.
“They look like little bullets racing down.” he says. “What did you say a couple of minutes ago? Those are particles doing something around the Earth’s magnetic field? What does that mean, daddy?”
“I am not sure that it means anything, son.” I say. “It’s just a way of sounding clever about something we can’t really describe by anything else than maths and art.”
“You sound weird!”
“The whole thing is weird.” I say. “Truth is that we can describe everything that happens perfectly well with some equations, but there’s no really good way to imagine why that light is up there now.”
“Dunno the first thing of what you just said, dad. But I’ll find out, I can tell you that…!”