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Not all science is carried out by folks in white lab coats under the fluorescent lights of academic buildings. Occasionally, the trajectory of the scientific record is forever altered inside a pub over a pint of beer.
Such is the case for the sweeping purple and green lights that can hover over the horizon in the Northern Hemisphere. The phenomenon looks like an aurora but is in fact something entirely different.
It’s called Steve.
The rare light spectacle has caused a bit of buzz this year as the sun is entering its most active period, ramping up the number of dazzling natural phenomena that appear in the night sky — and leading to new reports of people spotting Steve in areas it does not typically appear, such as parts of the United Kingdom.
But about eight years ago, when Elizabeth MacDonald, a space physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, was in Calgary, Alberta, for a seminar, she had never seen the phenomenon in person. And it did not yet have a name.
In fact, few scientists actively studying auroras and other night-sky phenomenon had witnessed a Steve, which appears closer to the equator than auroras and is characterized by a purple-pink arch accompanied by green, vertical stripes.
After MacDonald gave a talk at a nearby university, she met up with some citizen scientists — mostly photographers who spend nights hoping to capture the next stunning image of colors dancing in the Canadian sky — at Kilkenny Irish Pub.
“I had already been reaching out to the local Alberta aurora chasers (in) a Facebook group, which was pretty small at the time,” MacDonald said, “but very keen to share their observations and to interact with NASA.”
The photographers came with their photos in hand, anxious to show the mysterious light show they had captured.
Naming the spectacle
At the time, “we didn’t exactly know what it was,” MacDonald said of the phenomenon featured in the images.
Neil Zeller, a citizen scientist or photography subject matter expert — as the aurora-chasing photographers are sometimes called — was at that meeting.
“I started spotting what we used to call a proton arc in 2015,” Zeller said. “It had been photographed in the past, but misidentified, and so when I attended that meeting at the Kilkenny Pub … we’d started a bit of an argument about (whether) I’d seen a proton arc.”
Dr. Eric Donovan, a professor at the University of Calgary who was at the pub with MacDonald that day, assured Zeller he had not have seen a proton arc, which according to a paper Donovan later coauthored is “subvisual, broad, and diffuse,” while a Steve is “visually bright, narrow, and structured.”
“And the conclusion of that evening was, well, we don’t know what this is,” Zeller said. “But can we stop calling it a proton arc?”
It was shortly after that pub meeting that another aurora chaser, Chris Ratzlaff, suggested a name for the mysterious lights on the group’s Facebook page.
Members of the group were working to understand the phenomenon better, but “I propose we call it Steve until then,” Ratzlaff wrote in a February 2016 Facebook post.
The name was borrowed from “Over the Hedge,” the 2006 DreamWorks animated film in which a group of animals are frightened by a towering leafy bush and decide to refer to it as Steve. (“I’m a lot less scared of Steve,” a porcupine declares.)