Original post September 6, 2011
Leibniz’ beloved adage that natura non facit saltus or ‘nature does not make leaps’ has had to endure a fair amount of comeuppances since it gained currency.
An arresting example today of our unpredictable world is the rapid wandering of the north geomagnetic pole in recent years – an eastward movement currently estimated at a rate of 37 miles per year and possibly still accelerating. The surge of attention for this in the popular media highlights a widespread fear of the unknown, in which the possibility of a complete reversal of the earth’s magnetic poles occupies a prominent part.
Yet although signs that the earth’s magnetic field is really about to reverse are wanting, the likes of Carolus Linnaeus, Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin might have turned over in their graves at today’s grand display of nature’s capriciousness.
Whereas newspapers and television programmes delight in the phrase that the north magnetic pole of the earth has not been known to move with such celerity “since records began,” modern scientists are not at all taken aback by these developments, as such man-made records are really all but hoary.
Archaeologists, climatologists and geophysicists have been studying records of past pole movements buried in the earth’s crust since at least a couple of decades. Extracting archaeomagnetic measurements from baked clay materials, collected from archaeological sites, and – for earlier periods – from geological sediments, painstaking analysis has enabled researchers to model the past evolution of the earth’s magnetic field all the way back to the onset of the Holocene.
As early as 1992, a Japanese team published the diagram shown above, mapping the path of the north geomagnetic pole over the past 10 millennia. It transpires that “distribution of the geomagnetic pole was elongated to the direction parallel to the meridian of 45º and 225º longitude, and westward movement of the pole was predominant throughout this period.”
Moreover, the polar trajectory appeared to have involved three different intervals: prior to 5,000 BCE, “the movement of the geomagnetic pole was active, in which it changed its position over 15 degrees”; the period between 5,000 and 1,700 BCE was comparatively inactive, as “the range of the movement of the geomagnetic pole was limited within 5 degrees around the geographical pole,” and from 1,700 BCE onward the movement of the pole was again “very active, fluctuating over 10 degrees,” so that “the geomagnetic pole moved largely to the outside of the circle of 80 degrees of north latitude.”
The polar antics of antiquity help to place recent displacement patterns in a wider context. In addition, knowledge of the past positions of the poles is a vital tool in the study of transient celestial events in historical times – for along with the geomagnetic pole shifts the auroral oval, beneath which displays of the aurora are most frequent.
An especially active episode – known among Russian researchers as the Sterno-Etrussia geomagnetic excursion – occurred between ±800 and ±600 BCE and lasted one or two centuries. During this time, the geomagnetic dipole inclined more than 10º towards the East, taking it to ±81.4º N, 45.1º E, just to the northeast of Spitsbergen.
As the Babylonian city of Nippur was located at the same longitude, the dipole magnetic latitude of Babylon at that time was 40.8º N, as compared to the present-day value of 27.0º. This suggests “a higher auroral incidence at Babylon in 567 BC than at present,” as some have noted. It would also have predisposed the area to a richer variety of auroral forms, including the occurrence of magnificent overhead aurorae – or coronae; for comparison, the overhead aurora of 14 May 1921 occurred at 40º magnetic latitude, and the one of 1 September 1859 – the famous “Carrington Event” – at 36º.
The hypothesis is confirmed in fact by Babylonian observations of a red glow at around ±600 BCE, as mentioned in a cluster of cuneiform texts. Similar records “were uncommon in the centuries preceding and following this date, consistent with this being the only time over the past few thousand years that the magnetic pole was in the longitude of Nippur (modern day Iraq).”
Indeed, as a handful of researchers have argued, the very outburst of auroral activity exhibited in the skies over the Middle East during this period was almost certainly recorded in ancient sources as a smattering of “visions,” including the famous “vision of the chariot” reported by the Hebrew prophet, Ezekiel. The latter was essentially “a windstorm coming out of the North,” “an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light.”
Despite the presence of “lightning,” this was not an ordinary tempest: the luminous structure of wheels, animal-like creatures, “an expanse, sparkling like ice” and the crowning image of the enthroned deity all find close analogues in eyewitness reports of the polar aurora.
In the bigger picture, it can be shown that prophetic visions reducible to auroral apparitions – and perhaps accompanied by hallucinations, induced by ambient electromagnetic fields – have fuelled significant changes in prevailing cultural paradigms. It may not be coincidental that the Sterno-Etrussia geomagnetic excursion roughly corresponds to the so-called “axial age,” which was typified by spiritual revolutions extending from Greece to China. Confucianism and Daoism in China, Buddhism and Jainism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia, the reformative utterances of the Hebrew prophets and Greek philosophy all share a common origin in this epoch.
Although it is still premature to finger a geomagnetic cause for this age of reforms, the case of Ezekiel justifies the search for a correlation between geomagnetic upheaval and the inspirational visions had by many sages at this time – suggesting that the polar adventure of this era proved quite beneficial to denizens of the Old World. If the cultural history of mankind thus progresses in leaps and bounds, sometimes in tune with the dance of the magnetic poles, all are advised to allay “Doomsday” fears and to enjoy the ride.
Rens Van Der Sluijs
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