Scientist and sage of the Northern Lights: Dr John Mason MBE
Physicist and astronomer Dr John Mason has the answers to all of our questions about the Northern Lights, “truly nature's greatest light show”.
The spectacular appearance of the aurora borealis in Arctic skies has kept acclaimed British applied physicist and astronomer Dr John Mason MBE enthralled for decades. He has devoted much of his life to chasing the Northern Lights and understanding the mysteries of the night skies.
Since the late 1980s, he has traveled regularly to the Arctic to get up close and personal with the natural phenomenon – and he’s a seasoned seaman at spotting the Northern Lights aboard Hurtigruten. Every year since 2008, he has sailed the Norwegian Coast with us, acting as a guide and sharing his expertise on the skies above aboard our Astronomy Voyages.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1976, is a former President of the British Astronomical Association, and is the principal lecturer, honorary treasurer and trustee at the renowned South Downs Planetarium and Science Centre, in Chichester, southern England.
But as well as, or perhaps more important than, his professional tributes, Dr Mason has a seemingly boundless amount of enthusiasm, patience, and passion as he speaks to others about his favorite subject. So, who better for us to talk to about everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the Northern Lights?
Here, he tells us all about his own experiences of seeing the lights in the skies, “one of nature’s great spectacles”.
When did you first fall under the spell of the Northern Lights?
It was 5 August 1972. I was 18 and there was a great auroral display visible across England. I lived in a very dark, rural area and used to go out most nights to look at the sky. On that night, I saw an arc across the sky with vertical rays above it. At first, I didn't know what it was, but I watched it and saw it changing, then realized it must be the Northern Lights.
I’ve been fascinated by them ever since. It’s addictive, almost like a drug.
On 13 March 1989, there was another even more spectacular display of Northern Lights visible not only from southern England, but the whole of Europe and most of North America. It was the one of the greatest displays of the 20th century and it was then that I decided that I really wanted to get closer to this amazing natural phenomenon.
And so, from the late 1980s, I traveled into the Arctic almost every year to study and photograph the Northern Lights, and to share the experience with lots of other people.
What do you think makes the Northern Lights so special?
One of the allures of the aurora is that it’s so unpredictable. It’s comparable to snowflakes; there are millions of them but no two are identical. All auroral displays have similarities – they may start in a similar way, they may develop in a similar way – but no two will ever be exactly the same.
What’s the best Northern Lights display you’ve ever seen?
I’ve seen so many remarkable displays; some that look like a genie coming out of a bottle, ribbons like writhing snakes, flower heads with long, thin petals and a bird of paradise, which was part of one of the fastest moving auroral displays I’ve ever seen, but the most memorable display looked like a dragon.
It was few years ago in early October, aboard Hurtigruten. As the ship got to the end of Trollfjord, a tiny but spectacular fjord in northern Norway, and was turning around, a corona (a particular auroral form) started to form overhead. I was lying on my back with the camera on my tummy shouting at everybody to look up, because I knew that whatever was going to happen wasn't going to last long.
In the next 20-30 seconds, we had the amazing view of a dragon over Trollfjord! We could see the dragon’s head with horns, the wings, and his tail. As the display unfolded, the dragon turned from looking down at us to giving us a profile view. You never really know quite what to expect and watching this, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
Why do you think seeing the aurora borealis aboard Hurtigruten is such an incredible experience?
Traveling with Hurtigruten is a complete experience. It’s not just about the Northern Lights and the wonders of the Arctic night sky. It’s the whole experience of the Norwegian coast in winter.
They call it ‘The World's Most Beautiful Voyage’ and, having done it so many times, I can tell you, you never tire of it. It's like the Northern Lights itself. No two displays of Northern Lights are ever the same; no two trips on Hurtigruten are ever the same.
On The Coastal Express, you sail north along the coast of Norway into the Arctic Circle and beyond, and right underneath the Auroral Oval, so you get a different perspective of the Northern Lights depending on your location.
You can never guarantee there will be a clear sky but at least on a Hurtigruten voyage, the ship is traveling 12 to 14 knots, so the weather changes often. This means, even if it’s cloudy in one area, the ship will often move on to clear patches of sky, providing many more opportunities to see the Northern Lights.
I also appreciate the close connection between Norway, the Northern Lights, and the great Norwegian explorers. One of the greatest of them all, Fridtjof Nansen, was so interested in the Northern Lights that he published his pictures and thoughts about them, describing them as “an infinite sparkling play of colors that exceeds all that one can dream”.
Any last words of advice for those of us hoping to see the Northern Lights?
Patience is key, and a willingness to stay up late into the night. Nature does not necessarily run to our timetable, but when the lights do appear, they are often worth every moment of the wait. And once you have seen a really great display you cannot wait until the next one!