Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Courtesy of Joe Shaw

Chasing the lights October 12, 2012 • Published 10/12/12

MSU's Joe Shaw explains the northern lights and how to find them in your night sky
When Joe Shaw was 9, his family moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, which is fortuitously one of the best locations on Earth to view the aurora, or northern lights.

From that young age Shaw, who is now director of MSU's Optical Technology Center as well as professor of electrical engineering, learned to love watching and photographing the swirling colored arcs in the Arctic sky.

"I just remember being excited to see something so different from anything I had seen before," Shaw said. "I remember being impressed at the motion of the displays."

Shaw said he never outgrew that enthusiasm for the lights. In fact, that interest eventually led him to a career and to his current research--developing and using optical instruments for atmospheric measurements that help answer basic questions about weather, climate and nature.

"This work is helping lead to improved weather forecasts and more realistic climate models, while also training students to create, grow and find employment in the rapidly growing Montana laser and optics industry," Shaw said.

And, he still loves to find and photograph the northern lights. Here he explains the beautiful optical phenomena.

What causes the northern lights?

Auroras, or northern lights, appear as colored patterns in the night sky, primarily in polar regions. These lights are the result of energetic particles ejected from the sun, colliding with atoms and molecules of oxygen and nitrogen gas at the very highest reaches of Earth's atmosphere, near 100 km (or 62 miles).

Can anyone see northern lights, or do you have to go to the Arctic?

Many people do not realize that going to a high-latitude location like Alaska or Scandinavia is not necessary to see an aurora. Auroras can be seen in mid-latitude locations, like Montana, if you have sufficient patience and preparation. The key to seeing an aurora in Montana is to find a dark location and then look northward near midnight when the sun has recently ejected energetic particles out into space, in the direction of Earth.

Notices of such conditions can be found at websites such as or Real-time notice of a visible aurora in Montana can be obtained by signing up at the Montana Aurora Detector Network webpage,

For more information about Shaw and MSU's Optical Technology Center, go to: