Monthly Letters to Pulmonary Patients by Thomas L. Petty

Thomas L. Petty, M.D.

Professor of Medicine, 
University of Colorado

Chairman, National Lung Health Education Program (NLHEP)


National Lung Health Education Program
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HealthOne Center
1850 High Street
Denver, CO 80218
Phone: 303 839 6755
Fax: 303 832 8137

Aurora Borealis

January 1998
PEP Pioneers
Second Wind
Torrance, California

     Dear Friends:

     My message as this New Year dawns concerns the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. I am sure that the Southern counterpart, the Aurora Australis must be known as the Southern Lights. Although I have seen the Aurora in muted form from the high mountains of Colorado in the winter, there is nothing quite like observing them just south of the Arctic Circle at Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. This is where I and seven other pulmonologists "retreat" each year for fellowship, fishing, philosophizing and, believe it or not, some writing. Each year we write a book for primary care physicians on common pulmonary problems. This trek is not an event but an experience. It is also a process of profound human interaction amongst our group, which defines a friendship which would be hard to surpass. Just being at Great Slave Lake is a spiritual experience.

     This experience is often heightened by a sudden, spectacular nighttime display of what appears to be massive laser lights of mostly blue, yellow and green, zig-zagging across the sky in a spectacular display of atmospheric flamboyance. Natives must have been mystified by this event and, in fact, the exact nature of the Aurora has been the subject of intense study. The phenomenon can be beautifully photographed by modern techniques and has been viewed from above by astronauts. The scientific basis appears to be a massive electron discharge from oxygen atoms residing many miles in the sky. What triggers these events and controls their artistic traverses back and forth across the starry canopy isnt entirely known. One can spend the entire night awestruck by the magic that is displayed.

     Much folklore attends this nighttime ritual which is heightened in mid-winter. The fact that it often attracts young couples from Asia, who believe that conception of a male child is more likely under the influence of the Aurora. Making love in the out-of-doors, in the sub-zero weather, must take special energy and dedication. I plan to travel back to the Northwest Territories later this winter, not to eavesdrop, but to marvel at the sight and mystic that the Aurora brings.

     I will be in touch next month.

    Your friend,

   Thomas Petty, MD

Last update:
14 March 2002