Hannes Olof Gösta Alfvén (May 30, 1908; Norrköping, Sweden - April 2, 1995; Djursholm, Sweden) is known as a Swedish plasma physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his work developing magnetohydrodynamics theory. He trained as, and considered himself to be, an electrical power engineer, taught physics at university, became professor of electromagnetic theory, and accepted the Chair of Plasma Physics. Later he worked in universities in America. He died aged 86 years old.
Considered an outsider and a heretic by many of his peers, the engineer made significant contributions to plasma physics, including the aurorae, Van Allen radiation belts, the effect of magnetic storms on the Earth's magnetic field, the magnetosphere, the formation of comet tails, the formation of the solar system, and the dynamics of plasmas in our galaxy (plasma cosmology).
In 1937, when interstellar space was thought to be a vacuum and consequently unable to support an electrical current, he argued that if plasma pervaded the universe, then it could carry electric currents that could generate a galactic magnetic field. After winning his Nobel Prize for magnetohydrodynamics, it is said that he spent the rest of his life trying to convince scientists that magnetic fields were only half the story, and that electric currents played a more significant role in the universe. In 1974, his theoretical work on field-aligned electric currents in the aurora, based on earlier work by Kristian Birkeland, was confirmed by satellite, and Birkeland currents were discovered. Plasma Cosmology, a alternative theory to the Big Bang, is based on Alfvén's work.
Alfvén received a PhD from the University of Uppsala in 1934. His thesis was entitled "Investigations of the Ultra-short Electromagnetic Waves."
In 1934, he taught physics at both the University of Uppsala and the Nobel Institute for Physics in Stockholm. In 1940, he became professor of electromagnetic theory and electrical measurements at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. In 1945, he acquired the nonappointive Chair of Electronics at Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. It was changed to a Chair of Plasma Physics in 1963. In 1967, after leaving Sweden and spending some time in the Soviet Union, he moved to America. He worked in the departments of electrical engineering at two universities, the University of California, San Diego and the University of Southern California.
Alfvén considered himself an electrical power engineer. During his scientific career, prior to winning the Nobel Prize, Alfvén was not generally recognized as a leading innovator in the scientific community (though they were using his work). He enjoyed the assertion that he was guilty of a fault or offence by the entry into areas not previously explored in astrophysics leveled by other cosmologists and theoreticians.
Research, awards, and contributions
His work was continuously disputed for many years by the senior scientist in space physics, the British-American geophysicist Sydney Chapman. Alfvén had trouble with the peer review system. He did not in any circumstance benefit without volition the acceptance generally afforded senior scientists in scientific journals. Alfvén once submitted a paper on the theory of magnetic storms and auroras to the leading American journal Terrestrial Magnetism and Atmospheric Electricity and the paper was rejected on the ground that it did not agree with the theoretical calculations of conventional physics of the time. He was regarded as a person with unorthodox opinions in the field by many physicists. He was often forced to publish his papers in obscure journals.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1970 for his work with magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). In 1988, Alfvén was awarded by the American Geophysical Union the Bowie medal, for his work on comets and plasmas in the solar system.
Alfvén has also been awarded:
- Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1967)
- Gold Medal of the Franklin Institute (1971)
- Lomonosov Gold Medal of the USSR Academy of Sciences (1971)
Academies and institutes with Alfvén in their membership:
- Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
- Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences
- Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (life fellow)
- European Physical Society
- American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- Yugoslav Academy of Sciences
- Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs
Developed and researched
He played a central role in the development of:
- Plasma physics
- Charged particle beams
- Interplanetary physics
- Magnetospheric physics
- Solar phenomena investigation (such as the solar wind)
- Aurorae science
In 1939, Alfvén proposed the theory of magnetic storms and auroras and the theory of plasma dynamics in the earth's magnetosphere. Electric charges spiraling in magnetic fields caused the motions of electrons and ions.
Applications of his research in space science include:
- Van Allen radiation belt explanations
- Earth's magnetic field reduction during magnetic storms
- Magnetosphere (protective plasma covering the earth)
- Formation of comet tails
- Formation of the solar system
- Dynamics of plasmas in the galaxy
- Fundamental nature of the universe
Alfvén conducted interplanetary and magnetospheric physics research.
Alfvén's views followed the founder of magnetospheric physics, Kristian Birkeland. At the end of the nineteenth century, Birkeland proposed (backed by extensive data) that electric currents flowing down along the earth's magnetic fields into the atmosphere caused of the aurora and polar magnetic disturbances.
Alfvén's contributions helped develop:
- Particle beam accelerators
- Controlled thermonuclear fusion
- Hypersonic flight
- Rocket propulsion
- Reentry braking of space vehicles
Alfvén's contributions to astrophysics:
- Galactic magnetic field forms - Cosmic Magnetism (1937)
- Identify nonthermal radiation (synchrotron radiation) from astronomical sources (1950)
Alfvén waves (low frequency hydromagnetic plasma oscillations) are named in his honor. Many of his theories about the solar system have been verified as late as the 1980's through measurements of cometary and planetary magnetospheres by satellites and probes. Alfvén's theories gained acceptance only two or three decades after their publication. He is also known for developing plasma cosmology, a non-standard alternative to the big bang. Among physicists today, there is a general lack of awareness of some of Alfvén's contributions to fields of plasma physics (eg. the electric field description of plasmas, Birkeland currents, plasma circuits), and his ideas have routinely been used without recognition (eg. see the History of the discover of Birkeland currents, and Stephen G. Brush's article "Alfvén's Programme in Solar System Physics" (IEEE Trans. Plasma Science, Vol. 20 No. 6, Dec 1992).).
Alfvén versus the Big Bang
Alfvén and colleagues proposed an alternative cosmological theory to both the Steady State and the Big Bang cosmologies. Alfvén believed the problem with the Big Bang was that astrophysicists tried to extrapolate the origin of the universe from mathematical theories developed on the blackboard. The Big Bang was a myth according to Alfvén. This myth was devised to explain creation according to Alfvén. He confided with close friends that he felt the theory tried to make science compatible with the authoritative religious declaration of creatio ex nihilo or creation out of nothing.
Alfvén proposed a "plasma universe". This theory is called Plasma cosmology and after receiving a cold reception in the wider scientific community, stated that he thought 'the theory may take time to be accepted by the popular consciousness'.
Alfvén had a good sense of humor and he participated in a variety of social issues and worldwide disarmament movements. He had a long-standing distrust of computers. Alfvén studied the history of science and oriental philosophy and religion. He spoke Swedish, English, German, French, and Russian, and some Spanish and Chinese.
Alfvén wrote popular science books:
- Worlds-Antiworlds: Antimatter in Cosmology (1966)
- The Great Computer: A Vision (1968) [pen name: Olof Johannesson]
- Atom, Man, and the Universe: A Long Chain of Complications (1969)
- Living on the Third Planet (1972).
- Hannes Alfvén (Nobel Foundation)
- Hannes Alfvén bio (Los Alamos)
- Papers of Hannes Olof Gosta Alfven
- Hannes Alfvén Medal - awarded for outstanding scientific contributions towards the understanding of plasma processes in the solar system and other cosmical plasma environments
- Timeline of Nobel Prize Winners: Hannes Olof Gosta Alfven
- Hannes Alfven Papers (1945 - 1991) in the Mandeville Special Collections Library.
(Full text article available online) | Full List
- Jet Streams in Space (1970)
- Evolution of the Solar System (1976) with Gustaf Arrhenius (NASA book)
- Double radio sources and the new approach to cosmical plasma physics (1978) (PDF)
- Interstellar clouds and the formation of stars with Per Carlqvist (1978) (PDF)
- Energy source of the solar wind with Per Carlqvist (1980) (PDF) A direct transfer of energy from photospheric activity to the solar wind by means of electric currents is dicussed.
- Electromagnetic Effects and the Structure of the Saturnian Rings (1981) (PDF)
- A three-ring circuit model of the magnetosphere with Whipple, E. C. and Jr.; McIlwain (1981) (PDF)
- The Voyager 1/Saturn encounter and the cosmogonic shadow effect (1981) (PDF)
- Origin, evolution and present structure of the asteroid region (1983) (PDF)
- On hierarchical cosmology (1983) (PDF) Progress in lab studies of plasmas and on their methods of transferring the results to cosmic conditions.
- Solar system history as recorded in the Saturnian ring structure (1983) (PDF)
- Cosmology - Myth or science? (1984) (PDF)
- Cosmogony as an extrapolation of magnetospheric research (1984) (PDF)