Hannes Alfvén: Wikis


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Hannes Olof Gösta Alfvén

Born 30 May 1908(1908-05-30)
Norrköping, Sweden
Died 2 April 1995 (aged 86)
Djursholm, Sweden
Fields Plasma physics
Institutions University of Uppsala
Nobel Institute for Physics
Royal Institute of Technology
University of California, San Diego
University of Maryland, College Park
University of Southern California
Alma mater University of Uppsala
Doctoral students Carl-Gunne Falthammar
Bibhas De
Wing-Huen Ip
Known for magnetohydrodynamics
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Physics (1970)

Hannes Olof Gösta Alfvén (born 30 May 1908 in Norrköping, Sweden; died 2 April 1995 in Djursholm, Sweden) was a Swedish electrical engineer, plasma physicist and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). He was originally trained as an electrical power engineer and later moved to research and teaching in the fields of plasma physics and electrical engineering. Alfvén made many contributions to plasma physics, including theories describing the behavior of aurorae, the Van Allen radiation belts, the effect of magnetic storms on the Earth's magnetic field, the terrestrial magnetosphere, and the dynamics of plasmas in the Milky Way galaxy.



In 1937, Alfvén argued that if plasma pervaded the universe, it could then carry electric currents capable of generating a galactic magnetic field.[1] After winning the Nobel Prize for his works in magnetohydrodynamics, he emphasized that:

In order to understand the phenomena in a certain plasma region, it is necessary to map not only the magnetic but also the electric field and the electric currents. Space is filled with a network of currents which transfer energy and momentum over large or very large distances. The currents often pinch to filamentary or surface currents. The latter are likely to give space, as also interstellar and intergalactic space, a cellular structure.[2]

His theoretical work on field-aligned electric currents in the aurora (based on earlier work by Kristian Birkeland) was confirmed by satellite observations, in 1974, resulting in the discovery of Birkeland currents.



Alfvén received his PhD from the University of Uppsala in 1934. His thesis was titled "Investigations of the Ultra-short Electromagnetic Waves."

Early years

In 1934, Alfvén taught physics at both the University of Uppsala and the Nobel Institute for Physics in Stockholm, Sweden. 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 position of Chair of Electronics. His title was changed to Chair of Plasma Physics in 1963. In 1954-1955, Alfvén was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Maryland, College Park. In 1967, after leaving Sweden and spending time in the Soviet Union, he moved to the United States. Alfvén worked in the departments of electrical engineering at both the University of California, San Diego and the University of Southern California.

First and foremost, Alfvén considered himself an electrical engineer. Prior to winning the Nobel Prize, he was not generally recognized as a leading innovator in the scientific community.[citation needed]

Research, awards, and contributions

Alfvén's work was disputed for many years by the senior scientist in space physics, the British-American geophysicist Sydney Chapman. Alfvén's disagreements with Chapman stemmed in large part from trouble with the peer review system. Alfvén rarely benefited from the acceptance generally afforded senior scientists in scientific journals. He once submitted a paper on the theory of magnetic storms and auroras to the American journal Terrestrial Magnetism and Atmospheric Electricity and his 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,[3] R. H. Stuewer noting that "... he remained an embittered outsider, winning little respect from other scientists even after he received the Nobel Prize..."[4] and was often forced to publish his papers in obscure journals. Alfvén recalled:

When I describe the [plasma phenomena] according to this formulism most referees do not understand what I say and turn down my papers. With the referee system which rules US science today, this means that my papers are rarely accepted by the leading US journals.[5]

In 1988, Alfvén was awarded the Bowie medal by the American Geophysical Union for his work on comets and plasmas in the Solar system.


The Hannes Alfvén Prize is named after him.

Alfvén was also awarded:


Alfvén was one of the few scientists who was a foreign member of both the United States and Soviet Academies of Sciences.


Alfvén played a central role in the development of:

In 1939, Alfvén proposed the theory of magnetic storms and auroras and the theory of plasma dynamics in the earth's magnetosphere.

Applications of Alfvén's research in space science include:

Alfvén's views followed those of 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 the aurora and polar magnetic disturbances.

Areas of technology benefiting from Alfvén's contributions include:

Contributions to astrophysics:

  • Galactic magnetic field (1937)
  • Identified nonthermal 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 were verified as late as the 1980s through external measurements of cometary and planetary magnetospheres. But Alfvén himself noted that astrophysical textbooks poorly represented known plasma phenomena:

A study of how a number of the most used textbooks in astrophysics treat important concepts such as double layers, critical velocity, pinch effects, and circuits is made. It is found that students using these textbooks remain essentially ignorant of even the existence of these concepts, despite the fact that some of them have been well known for half a century (e.g, double layers, Langmuir, 1929; pinch effect, Bennet, 1934).[6]

Alfvén reported that of 17 of the most used textbooks on astrophysics, none mention the pinch effect, none mentioned critical ionization velocity, only two mentioned circuits, and three mentioned double layers.

Alfvén's cosmological model

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, rather than starting from known observable phenomena. He also considered the Big Bang to be a scientific myth devised to explain creation.[7]

Alfvén and colleagues proposed the Alfvén-Klein model as an alternative cosmological theory to both the Big Bang and steady state theory cosmologies.

Later years

In 1991, Alfvén retired as professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, San Diego and professor of plasma physics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

Alfvén spent his adult life alternating between California and Sweden. He died at the age of 86.

The asteroid 1778 Alfvén was named in his honour.

Personal life

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, oriental philosophy, and religion. He spoke Swedish, English, German, French, and Russian, and some Spanish and Chinese. He expressed great concern about the difficulties of permanent high-level radioactive waste management."[8] Alfvén was also interested in problems in cosmology and all aspects of auroral physics, and used Schröder's well known book on aurora, Das Phänomen des Polarlichts.[9] Letters of Alfvén, Treder, and Schröder were published on the occasion of Treder's 70th birthday.[10][11] A long paper on changes in auroral theories was published by Wilfried Schröder in honor of Hannes Alfvén's 80th birthday in the German scientific journal Gerlands Beiträge zur Geophysik in 1988. The relationships between Hans-Jürgen Treder, Hannes Alfvén and Wilfried Schröder were discussed in detail by Schröder in his publications.

Alfvén was married for 67 years to his wife Kerstin. They raised five children, one boy and four girls. His son became a physician, while one daughter became a writer and another a lawyer in Sweden. The composer Hugo Alfvén was Hannes Alfvén's uncle.


Full List

  • Cosmical Electrodynamics, International Series of Monographs on Physics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950. (See also 2nd Ed. 1963, co-authored with Carl-Gunne Fälthammar)
  • Worlds-Antiworlds: Antimatter in Cosmology (1966)
  • The Great Computer: A Vision (1968) (a political-scientific satire under the pen name Olof Johannesson; publ. Gollancz, ISBN 05750-0059-7)
  • Atom, Man, and the Universe: A Long Chain of Complications (1969)
  • Living on the Third Planet (1972).
  • Cosmic Plasma, Astrophysics and Space Science Library, Vol. 82 (1981) Springer Verlag. ISBN 90-277-1151-8
  • Schröder, Wilfried, and Hans Jürgen Treder. 2007. Theoretical physics and geophysics: Recollections of Hans-Jürgen Treder (1928 - 2006). Potsdam: Science Editions.


  1. ^ Hannes Alfvén, 1937 "Cosmic Radiation as an Intra-galactic Phenomenon", Ark. f. mat., astr. o. fys. 25B, no. 29.
  2. ^ Hannes Alfvén, "Cosmology in the Plasma Universe: An Introductory Exposition" (1990) IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science (ISSN 0093-3813), vol. 18, Feb. 1990, p. 5-10
  3. ^ David J. Miller, Michel Hersen, Research Fraud in the Behavioral and Biomedical Sciences 1992. They describe the "renegade Nobel Prize winner physicist Hannes Alfvén"
  4. ^ RH Stuewer, Book Reviews (2006) Physics in Perspective Volume 8, No 1, March 2006, pp.104-112 Springer.
  5. ^ Hannes Alfvén, "Memoirs of a Dissident Scientist", American Scientist, May-June 1988, pp.249-251. Quoted in Joseph Paul Martino, Science Funding: Politics and Porkbarrel 1992, Transaction Publishers, ISBN 1-56000-03303
  6. ^ Hannes Alfvén, "Double layers and circuits in astrophysics" (1986) IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science (ISSN 0093-3813), vol. PS-14, Dec. 1986, p. 779-793.
  7. ^ Hannes Alfvén, Cosmology—Myth or Science? J Astrophysics and Astronomy, vol. 5, pp. 79-98, (1984).
  8. ^ Abbotts, John (October 1979). "Radioactive waste: A technical solution?". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: 12–18. 
  9. ^ Schröder, Wilfried . 2000. The Aurora in time. (Das Phänomen des Polarlichts). Darmstadt: Reproduction.
  10. ^ Schröder, Wilfried, and Hans Jürgen Treder. 1998. From Newton to Einstein: A festschrift in honour of the 70th birthday of Hans-Jürgen Treder. Bremen: Rönnebeck; Arbeitskreis Geschichte der Geophysik in der Deutschen Geophysikalischen Gesellschaft.
  11. ^ Schröder, Wilfried, and Hans Jürgen Treder. 1993. The earth and the universe: A festschrift in honour of Hans-Jürgen Treder. Bremen-Rönnebeck: Science Editions.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010
(Redirected to Hannes Alfven article)

From Wikiquote

Hannes Olof Gösta Alfvén (30 May 1908; Norrköping, Sweden - 2 April 1995; Djursholm, Sweden) was 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.


  • We should remember that there was once a discipline called natural philosophy. Unfortunately, this discipline seems not to exist today. It has been renamed science, but science of today is in danger of losing much of the natural philosophy aspect.
    • as quoted by Anthony L. Peratt, Dean of the Plasma Dissidents in The World and I (supplement to the Washington Times, May 1988) p. 192.
  • Scientists tend to resist interdisciplinary inquiries into their own territory. In many instances, such parochialism is founded on the fear that intrusion from other disciplines would compete unfairly for limited financial resources and thus diminish their own opportunity for research.
    • as quoted by Anthony L. Peratt, Dean of the Plasma Dissidents in The World and I (supplement to the Washington Times, May 1988) p. 192.
  • I have never thought that you could obtain the extremely clumpy, heterogeneous universe we have today, strongly affected by plasma processes, from the smooth, homogeneous one of the Big Bang, dominated by gravitation.
    • as quoted by Anthony L. Peratt, Dean of the Plasma Dissidents in The World and I (supplement to the Washington Times, May 1988) p. 196.
  • There is no rational reason to doubt that the universe has existed indefinitely, for an infinite time. It is only myth that attempts to say how the universe came to be, either four thousand or twenty billion years ago.
    • as quoted by Anthony L. Peratt, Dean of the Plasma Dissidents in The World and I (supplement to the Washington Times, May 1988) p. 196.
  • Since religion intrinsically rejects empirical methods, there should never be any attempt to reconcile scientific theories with religion. An infinitely old universe, always evolving, may not be compatible with the Book of Genesis. However, religions such as Buddhism get along without having any explicit creation mythology and are in no way contradicted by a universe without a beginning or end. Creatio ex nihilo, even as religious doctrine, only dates to around AD 200. The key is not to confuse myth and empirical results, or religion and science.
    • as quoted by Anthony L. Peratt, Dean of the Plasma Dissidents in The World and I (supplement to the Washington Times, May 1988) p. 196.
  • Most people today still believe, perhaps unconsciously, in the heliocentric universe ... every newspaper in the land has a section on astrology, yet few have anything at all on astronomy.
    • as quoted by Anthony L. Peratt, Dean of the Plasma Dissidents in The World and I (supplement to the Washington Times, May 1988) p. 196.
  • I have no trouble publishing in Soviet astrophysical journals, but my work is unacceptable to the American astrophysical journals.
    • as quoted by Anthony L. Peratt, Dean of the Plasma Dissidents in The World and I (supplement to the Washington Times, May 1988) p. 197.
  • The peer review system is satisfactory during quiescent times, but not during a revolution in a discipline such as astrophysics, when the establishment seeks to preserve the status quo.
    • as quoted by Anthony L. Peratt, Dean of the Plasma Dissidents in The World and I (supplement to the Washington Times, May 1988) p. 197.
  • Students using astrophysical textbooks remain essentially ignorant of even the existence of plasma concepts, despite the fact that some of them have been known for half a century. The conclusion is that astrophysics is too important to be left in the hands of astrophysicists who have gotten their main knowledge from these textbooks. Earthbound and space telescope data must be treated by scientists who are familiar with laboratory and magnetospheric physics and circuit theory, and of course with modern plasma theory.
    • as quoted by Anthony L. Peratt, Dean of the Plasma Dissidents in The World and I (supplement to the Washington Times, May 1988) p. 197.

Quotes about Alfven

  • "During Alfvén's visit he gave a lecture at the University of Chicago, which was attended by Enrico Fermi. As Alfvén described his work, Fermi nodded his head and said, 'Of course.' The next day the entire world of physics said. 'Oh. of course.'"
    • Alex Dessler, editor Geophysical Research Letters
  • "When I entered the field of space physics in 1956, I recall that I fell in with the crowd believing, for example, that electric fields could not exist in the highly conducting plasma of space. It was three years later that I was shamed by S. Chandrasekhar into investigating Alfvén's work objectively. My degree of shock and surprise in finding Alfvén right and his critics wrong can hardly be described. I learned that a cosmic ray acceleration mechanism basically identical to the famous mechanism suggested by Fermi in 1949 had [previously] been put forth by Alfvén."
    • Alex Dessler

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