Photo from the Aurora Borealis Lodge in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Today starts the Sci-Fi Summer Readathon. It’s not surprising that there aren’t many sci-fi-ish folk tales or fairy tales out there, so instead I found a spacey tale. This story comes from the Walter J. Hoffman’s book, The Menomini Indians, circa 1888. I found it at Windows to the Universe.org. The Menomini are a federally recognized nation of Native Americans, with a reservation in Wisconsin. Historically, the tribe occupied a territory in upper Michigan and Wisconsin.  Their explanation of the aurora borealis is simple, but I like it.

In the direction of the north wind live the manabai’wok (giants), of whom we have heard our old people tell. The manabai’wok are our friends, but we do not see them anymore. They are great hunters and fishermen, and whenever they are out with their torches to spear fish we know it, because then the sky is bright over the place where they are.

I’ve never seen the northern lights. I’m told there are times when you can see it from around here, but I live in town. You have to be way out in the country away from lights on just the right day. It’s pretty rare.

According to the Northern Lights Centre, the bright dancing lights of the aurora are actually  the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora.

The connection between the Northern Lights and sunspot activity has been suspected since about 1880. Thanks to research conducted since the 1950’s, we now know that electrons and protons from the sun are blown towards the earth on the ‘solar wind’.  The temperature above the surface of the sun is millions of degrees Celsius. At this temperature, collisions between gas molecules are frequent and explosive. Free electrons and protons are thrown from the sun’s atmosphere by the rotation of the sun and escape through holes in the magnetic field. Blown towards the earth by the solar wind, the charged particles are largely deflected by the earth’s magnetic field. However, the earth’s magnetic field is weaker at either pole and therefore some particles enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with gas particles. These collisions emit light that we perceive as the dancing lights of the north (and the south).

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all. Feel free to join in.