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The Plasma Universe of Hannes Alfvén

The Plasma Universe of Hannes Alfvén

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Published by SyncOrSwim
No scientist added more to our knowledge of electromagnetism in space than Hannes Alfvén (1908–1995). His insights changed the picture of the universe, revealing the profound effects of charged particle movement at all scales of observation. But recognition never came quickly, and never easily, and mainstream journals typically regarded Alfvén as an outsider,
No scientist added more to our knowledge of electromagnetism in space than Hannes Alfvén (1908–1995). His insights changed the picture of the universe, revealing the profound effects of charged particle movement at all scales of observation. But recognition never came quickly, and never easily, and mainstream journals typically regarded Alfvén as an outsider,

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Published by: SyncOrSwim on Nov 21, 2011
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n the 20th century no scientist added more to our knowl-edge of electromagnetism in space than Hannes Alfvén(1908–1995). His insights changed the picture of the uni- verse, revealing the profound effects of charged particle move-ment at all scales of observation. But recognition never camequickly, and never easily, and mainstream journals typically regarded Alfvén as an outsider, often rejecting his submis-sions. In retrospect, Alfvén’s difculties in gaining acceptancecan only highlight the inertia of institutionalized ideas in thesciences, reminding us of the obstacles faced by all of history’sgreat scientic innovators. Awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his contributionto physics, Alfvén emerged as a towering critic of directionsin astronomy, cosmology, and astrophysics. Though he wassurely not correct on everything he proposed, decades of spaceexploration eventually conrmed a lifetime of observationsand hypotheses, often with implications that many space sci-entists did not want to hear. “In the world of specialized sci-ence,” wrote plasma scientist Anthony Peratt, “Alfvén was anenigma. Regarded as a heretic by many physicists, Alfvén madecontributions to physics that today are being applied in thedevelopment of particle beam accelerators, controlled thermo-nuclear fusion, hypersonic ight, rocket propulsion, and thebraking of reentering space vehicles.”
 But Alfvén’s impact reached far beyond new technologies.He devoted much of his life to the study of plasma, a highly conductive, elementary form of matter characterized by thepresence of freely moving charged particles, not just electri-cally neutral atoms. Normal gases become plasma throughheating and partial ionization as some percentage of the atomsgive up one or more of their constituent electrons. Oftencalled “the fourth state of matter” after solids, liquids, andgases, plasma is now known to constitute well over 99 percentof the observed universe. Alfven is the acknowledged father of “plasma cosmol-ogy,” a new way of seeing formative processes in the heavens.Proponents of plasma cosmology suggest that vast but invisibleelectric currents play a fundamental role in organizing cosmicstructure, from galaxies and galactic clusters down to stars andplanets. The Big Bang hypothesis, black holes, dark matter,and dark energy are only a few of today’s popular cosmologicalthemes disputed by scientists working with this new perspec-tive. Many central tenets of plasma cosmology emerged fromlaboratory experiments with plasma and electric discharge,and it was Alfvén himself who showed that plasma behaviorin the laboratory can be scaled up to galactic dimensions: vastregions of plasma in space behave similary to plasma on earth.Underscoring the enormity of ignoring cosmic electro-magnetic effects in cosmology is the fact that the electric forcebetween charged particles is some 39 orders of magnitude(a thousand trillion trillion trillion) times stronger than thegravitational force. In comparative terms, gravity is incompre-hensibly weak; a hand-held magnet will raise a small metallicsphere against the entire gravity of the Earth. Alfvén’s documentation of laboratory plasma experimentseventually made it impossible to ignore the role of electricity inspace. He explained the auroras based on the work of his pre-decessor Kristian Birkeland; correctly described the Van Allenradiation belts; identied previously unrecognized electro-magnetic attributes of Earth’s magnetosphere; explained thestructure of comet tails; and much more.
David Talbott
 The Plasma Universe
of Hannes Alfvén
annees Alfvén with necklace of feathers from Fiji.
ourtesy arl-unneFälthammar
Early Life
Hannes Olof Gösta Alfvén was born onMay 30th, 1908, in Norrköping, Sweden. Astrophysicist Carl-Gunne Fälthammar,perhaps Alfvén closest colleague, notes twochildhood experiences inuencing the pio-neer’s intellectual development and eventu-ally his scientic career.
One was a book onpopular astronomy by Camille Flammarion,sparking a lifelong fascination with astrono-my and astrophysics. The other was his activerole in a school radio club, a role that includedbuilding radio receivers. His natural facility forelectronics can be seen at an early age and contin-ued through his formal education. “...As a scientist,” writes Fälthammar, “Hannes was inclined to look at astro-physical problems from an electromagnetic point of view, andthis turned out to be very fruitful.” While a graduate student Alfvén wrote a paper interpret-ing the source of cosmic rays. He submitted the article to thedistinguished scientic journal
, which published it in1933. In this rst peer-reviewed article by Alfvén, one seeshis early condence in laboratory experiments as pointers toevents in space. Alfvén received his PhD in theoretical and experimentalphysics from the University of Uppsala in Sweden in 1934.Early highlights of his academic career, beginning the year of his PhD, include teaching physics at the University of Uppsalaand at Sweden’s Nobel Institute for Physics. He later servedas professor of electromagnetic theory and electrical measure-ments at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Formany years he served as Chair of Electronics, a title changedto “Chair of Plasma Physics” in 1963. He also spent time inthe Soviet Union before moving to the United States, wherehe worked in the departments of electrical engineering at boththe University of California, San Diego, and the University of Southern California.In 1937 Alfvén observed that the charged par-ticles of a raried plasma appear to pervade inter-stellar and intergalactic space. And he suggestedthat these particle motions were responsible for thedetected magnetic elds. A few years later, in theearly 1940s, Alfvén proposed that the Sun and plan-ets emerged from a cloud of ionized gas and that,in such processes, “electromagnetic forces have beenmore important than mechanical forces.” The latterclaim, together with other emphases on electric currents, would place Alfvén’s work in direct conict with a cardinaltenet of astronomy at the beginning of the space age—theassumption that only gravity can perform “real work” acrossinterstellar or intergalactic distances.
 Alfvén’s interest in magnetic elds laid the foundationsof today’s magnetohydrodynamic theory, a theory widely employed by astrophysicists. In the original formulations of the theory, Alfvén spoke of magnetic elds being “frozen”into neutral plasma, and the magnetohydrodynamic equa-tions he formulated implied that the electric currents that cre-ate magnetic elds could be effectively ignored. Hence, theplasma activity on the Sun and in more remote space couldbe analyzed without reference to any larger domain of electriccurrents or electric circuits.To this notion astronomers were readily attracted, and fora time they thought they had an ally in the brilliant electricalengineer. Although his “fundamental work and discoveries inmagnetohydrodynamics” led to his Nobel Prize in 1970, thebackground to this occasion is paradoxical.Through much of the 19th and 20th century, mostastronomers and cosmologists had assumed the “vacuum” of space would not permit electric currents. Later, when it wasdiscovered that all of space is a sea of electrically conductiveplasma, the theorists reversed their position, asserting that any charge separation would be immediately neutralized. Herethey found what they were looking for in Alfvén’s frozen-inmagnetic elds and in his magnetohydrodynamic equations.Electric currents could then be viewed as strictly localized andtemporary phenomena—needed just long enough to createa magnetic eld, to
plasma, a virtually “perfect”conductor.The underlying idea was that space could have been mag-netized in primordial times or in early stages of stellar andgalactic evolution, all under the control of higher-order kinet-ics and gravitational dynamics. All large scale events in spacecould still be explained in terms of disconnected islands, andit would only be necessary to look 
the “islands” to dis-cover localized electromagnetic events—no larger electric cur-rents or circuitry required. In this view, popularly held today, we live in a “magnetic universe” (the title of several recentbooks and articles), but not an electric universe. The point was
 A young annes Alfvén reading a popular astronomy book byamille Flammarion.
mage credit: arl-unne Fälthammar
Pages from 15-year-old annes Alfvén’s notebook.
mage credit: arl-unne Fälthammar
universe became “the playground of theoreticians who havenever seen a plasma in a laboratory. Many of them still believein formulae which we know from laboratory experiments tobe wrong.” Again and again Alfvén reiterated the point: the underly-ing assumptions of cosmologists today “are developed withthe most sophisticated mathematical methods and it is only the plasma itself which does not ‘understand’ how beautifulthe theories are and absolutely refuses to obey them.”
Cellular Structure and Filamentation of Space
The fundamental truth discerned by Alfvén, but ignored by proponents of his “magnetohydrodynamic” model, is thatplasma in space cannot have a magnetic eld permanently “fro-zen” in to it. In space plasma environments, electric currentsare required to create and sustain magnetic elds. “In orderto understand the phenomena in a certain plasma region, it isnecessary to map not only the magnetic but also the electriceld and the electric currents. Space is lled with a network of currents that transfer energy and momentum over large or very large distances. The currents often pinch to lamentary or surface currents. The latter are likely to give space, interstel-lar and intergalactic space included, a
 Of course when Alfvén discussed these issues, electriccurrents and cellular plasma congurations in space were sim-ply off the grid of theoretical astrophysics: “...Space in generalhas a ‘cellular structure,’” he wrote, observing that the cellular walls are not visible and could only be measured by sending aspace probe through those inaccessi-ble regions. Based on his own labora-tory research and backed by the work of Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuirand others, he noted that the plasmacell boundaries, called “double lay-ers,” tend to insulate the regionsinside these cells from the regionsoutside.Plasma experiments show thatstrong electric elds can be pres-ent across the walls of these cellularsheaths (double layers), and the pres-ence of the these elds is essential tounderstanding plasma behavior. Toignore this cellular structure in thecosmos, Alfvén observed, is to assumethat deep space plasmas “have prop-erties which are drastically differentfrom what they are in our own neigh-borhood. This is obviously far morestated bluntly by the eminent solar physicist Eugene Parker,“…No signicant electric eld can arise in the frame of refer-ence of the moving plasma.”
But the critical turn in this story, the part almost nevertold within the community of astronomers and astrophys-icists, is that Alfvén came to realize he had been mistaken.Ironically—and to his credit—Alfvén used the occasion of hisacceptance speech for the Nobel Prize to plead with scientiststo ignore his earlier work. Magnetic elds, he said, are only part of the story. The electric currents that create magneticelds must not be overlooked, and attempts to model spaceplasma in the absence of electric currents will set astronomy and astrophysics on a course toward crisis, he said.In accord with Alvén’s observations, American physicist,professor Alex Dessler, former editor of the journal
Geophysical Research Letters 
, notes that he himself had originally fallen in with an academic crowd that believed electric elds could notexist in the highly conducting plasma of space. “My degreeof shock and surprise in nding Alfvén right and his critics wrong can hardly be described.”
 In retrospect, it seems clear that Alfvén considered hisearly theoretical assumption of frozen-in magnetic elds tobe his greatest mistake, a mistake perpetuated rst and fore-most by mathematicians attracted to Alfvén’s magnetohydro-dynamic equations. Alfvén came to recognize that real plasmabehavior is too “complicated and awkward” for the tastes of mathematicians. It is a subject “not at all suited for mathe-matically elegant theories.” It requires hands-on attention toplasma dynamics in the laboratory. Sadly, he said, the plasma
 A “typical day on the Sun,” showing theenergetic loops and prominences thattrace out the complex magnetic eldscarpeting the Sun’s surface. But what isthe contribution of external electric elds tothese events?
redit: ASA/TAE

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