When the sun throws charged particles into space, waves of them invariably collide with the outer layer of the Earth's atmosphere, known as the thermosphere, where they strike gas molecules and release light. In the northern hemisphere this released light is called the aurora borealis. In the south, it's the aurora australis. And Australia got some of the latter variety on Tuesday night.
It's rare to show up to a beach the dead of winter at midnight and find it buzzing. Especially at Cape Schanck, which is an hour from Melbourne and always windy. But the crowds had obviously decided here they'd find less light pollution and more auroras. Unfortunately, they—and we—were wrong.
While others around Victoria were taking the most heartrendingly beautiful shots (see the above image from photographer Lachlan Manley) the sky stayed cloudy at the Schanck. So with nothing else to do, I walked around asking people why? Not that there was a clear answer; it wasn't really a clear question. But given the awe-inspiring experience we were gathered to receive, it seemed like a thing to ask.
VICE: Hi Eloise. Can you tell me why?
Eloise Pigott: Because the aurora borealis always meant a lot to my nana. She lived in Canada and told me about the lights, and the real mountains they have there. So I wanted to see the southern lights myself, and for my nana.
Well, I guess she was a significant figure in my life. She always knew exactly how I was feeling and that meant a lot to me, more than once.
Why do you say that?
I went through some dark times, dealing with depression. When it was at its worst I'd hide it, and no one would know or ask the right questions. But she always knew. When it was really dark, she'd call.
This sounds weird, but I can't explain it. She had a photo of me on her mantelpiece. She told me that every now and then the photo would fall off and she'd know something was wrong. All the way from Canada. I'm a scientist and I can't explain it, but she always called exactly when I needed it most. Maybe she saved me.
But you say you're a scientist. Why do you believe that?
Because I have to. It happened. And I think that maybe that stuff works on waves and energy, which is why we came out here tonight. We came out to see waves of energy.
Jess Kirby: I came because the lights are aesthetically pleasing. I'm mostly a portrait photographer so I have nothing to do with the science side, I just like it because it's pretty.
Why is it pretty?
Because it's this ethereal glow in the atmosphere.
So why photography?
Because you can make people see things that they can't usually see with their eyes. I just like to capture things. It's about capturing things from my point of view. I have a very vivid imagination.
Why do the southern lights fire your imagination?
Because it's fantasy—fairies in the sky and mermaids, fairy tales. It's a very positive happy, feeling. I grew up with fairy tales and I ran around in tutus but now the magic is gone. I just moved here from Brisbane. I moved into an apartment and now I'm paying rent and all that stuff. So I just wanted to come down here and see some fairies. I wanted adult life to go away.
Michael Schimidt: Just for something a bit different. I thought it would break up the usual routine. I get up, go to work, come home, then eat dinner, and go to bed. That's what we all do.
That's just the way it's ended up. People are used to routine, as routine is easier. People get comfortable and are afraid of change. Or they're worried that a small change will create a larger change that they weren't looking for. I'm looking for change though.
I studied geology in uni and got into a job that I don't enjoy. I liked the idea of working on new things, new science, and making new discoveries. But instead I just test the same type of samples every day and put numbers on a page. I'm looking for something new.
Everyone likes new things. New experiences, new places, even down to new technology. New is just good.
So Beth, why?
Beth Holzer: I used to monitor websites that tracked solar flares, and then I once flew down to Hobart to see the lights. I didn't see anything, so tonight I heard there was a chance and I drove down.
Because it's really cool that giant solar winds can interfere with the earth's magnetic fields and create awesome colors. Science is something that interested in me in school but I didn't do very well.
Because I smoked a lot of weed. It opened my mind and made me interested in all these aspects of science that I'd never noticed before. It's what got me into science, but I don't smoke anymore. I'm one of the unlucky people whose brain gets stuffed up by weed. It makes me feel like my brain is trapped inside my body and like, I'm in a fishbowl and I can't get out and everything is going really slowly. I can hear my heartbeat everywhere and it scares me more than anything else.
Because I can't control myself. I'd rather be in control than hand that control to something or someone else. I love feeling in control, and I hate the opposite.
Because there are so many unknowns. We know so little, like, we don't even know why we're here and that's a thought that kills me. I think about that all the time.
Is there some shred of an answer in the southern lights?
Maybe. I feel like there is. Maybe that's why I came.
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