6 / EDGESCIENCE #9 • OCTOBER–DECEMBER 2011
Hannes Olof Gösta Alfvén was born onMay 30th, 1908, in Norrköping, Sweden. Astrophysicist Carl-Gunne Fälthammar,perhaps Alfvén closest colleague, notes twochildhood experiences inuencing the pio-neer’s intellectual development and eventu-ally his scientic 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 scientic journal
, which published it in1933. In this rst peer-reviewed article by Alfvén, one seeshis early condence 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 raried 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 conict 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 byamille Flammarion.
mage credit: arl-unne Fälthammar
Pages from 15-year-old annes Alfvén’s notebook.
mage credit: arl-unne Fälthammar