Hannes Alfvén – the Father of Plasma Physics

Hannes Alfvén

Hannes Alfvén

On May 30, 1908Swedish electrical engineer, plasma physicist, and Nobel laureate Hannes Alfvén was born. Alfvén won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). He described the class of MHD waves now known as Alfvén wavesAlfvén 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.

Hannes Alfvén taught physics at the University of Uppsala as well as the Nobel Institute for Physics. He was appointed professor of electromagnetic theory and electrical measurements at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm in 1940. Five years later, Alfvén was made Chair of Electronics and during the 1950s, Alfvén  became a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Maryland. Hannes Alfvén left Sweden during the 1960s and after a time in the Soviet Union, Alfvén moved to the United States working at the University of California, San Diego and the University of Southern California.

Alfvén argued that if plasma pervaded the universe, it could then carry electric currents capable of generating a galactic magnetic field in 1937. For many years however, his research work was disputed by he senior scientist in space physics, the British mathematician and geophysicist Sydney Chapman. It is believed that Alfvén’s trouble with Sydney Chapman resulted from issues with the peer review system. When Alfvén submitted a paper on the theory of magnetic storms and auroras to the American journal Terrestrial Magnetism and Atmospheric Electricity only to have his paper rejected on the ground that it did not agree with the theoretical calculations of conventional physics of the time. Hannes Alfvén was then regarded a person with unorthodox opinions in the field by many physicists. In 1967, his theoretical work on field-aligned electric currents in the aurora was confirmed in 1967, today these currents are known as Birkeland currents. In 1970, Hannes Alfvén won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on magnetohydrodynamics.

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