Nordic cosmogonies: Birkeland, Arrhenius and fin-de-siècle cosmical physics
Centre for Science Studies, Aarhus University,
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Received in final form: 10 June 2013
Published online: 26 July 2013
During the two decades before World War I, many physicists, astronomers and earth scientists engaged in interdisciplinary research projects with the aim of integrating terrestrial, solar and astronomical phenomena. Under the umbrella label “cosmical physics” they studied, for example, geomagnetic storms, atmospheric electricity, cometary tails and the aurora borealis. According to a few of the cosmical physicists, insights in solar-terrestrial and related phenomena might be extrapolated to the entire solar system or beyond it. Inspired by their research in the origin and nature of the aurora, Kristian Birkeland from Norway and Svante Arrhenius from Sweden proposed new theories of the universe that were of a physical rather than astronomical nature. Whereas Birkeland argued that electrons and other charged particles penetrated the entire universe – and generally that electromagnetism was of no less importance to cosmology than gravitation – Arrhenius built his cosmology on the hypothesis of dust particles being propelled throughout the cosmos by stellar radiation pressure. Both of the Scandinavian scientists suggested that the universe was infinitely filled with matter and without a beginning or an end in time. Although their cosmological speculations did not survive for long, they are interesting early attempts to establish physical cosmologies and for a while they attracted a good deal of attention.
© EDP Sciences, Springer-Verlag 2013