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Tom Thomson's Northern Lights - April 1917

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Northern Lights from April  1917... Tom’s motivation to “record” this particular observation –the aurora borealis. Grab a coffee, this will take a few pages...

Once again Tom is looking northeast although the blinding sun is not an issue at night. Tom has decided to paint a “solar storm” which indeed creates the “aurora borealis” or northern nights.

Astronomy columnist Ivan Semeniuk did some investigation into this painting and the stars depicted. He identified the stars as belonging to the constellation Cassiopeia which looks like a tilted “W”. Using this information, he identified the location where Tom must have stood in April of 1917 while he completed this painting. He called his work “astronomical sleuthing”. I call what I do “forensic meteorology or creative scene investigation (commonly referred to as CSI and something quite different from that TV show of a similar title)”.

Star twinkling is caused by non uniformity in the index of refraction caused by turbulence of the air through which the light from the stars must travel in order to get to your eye. Stars are so distant that they appear as points of light. These pin points of light will appear to dance about as they encounter different "cells" of the atmosphere which have different temperatures and densities. Planets are close enough that they appear as disks of light which tend to average the light over multiple cells of the atmosphere and they appear much steadier than stars, even though they are not perceived to be much larger than stars by the unaided eye.

A cold air mass favourable for Auroura Borealis tends to be uniformly frigid and stars are rigid - they do not twinkle. 

There’s a cold snap leavin’ the stars alone, And I really want to see you tonight.” Chadwick modification to some popular song lyrics.


There’s ain’t no warm wind blowin’ the the stars around, And I really want to see you tonight.” Another Chadwick modification to popular song lyrics that never hit the radio. From a science perspective, both sets of lyrics actually work for a non-twinkling star but they are tough to dance to. 

England Dan And John Ford Coley actually wrote 

"I'm not talking 'bout movin' in 

And I don't want to change your life

But there's a warm wind blowing the stars around

And I'd really love to see you tonight"

Stars certainly do twinkle but not so much on a cold, aurora borealis night. Thus we can clearly see the giant "W" of Cassiopeia in Tom's painting along with a host of other stars. 

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