Alfvén, Hannes

Hannes Olof Gösta Alfvén (May 30, 1908 – April 2, 1995) was a Swedish plasma physicist born in Norrköping, Sweden. Alfvén received his PhD from the University of Uppsala in 1934. His thesis was titled “Investigations of the Ultra-short Electromagnetic Waves.” He was originally trained as an electrical power engineer and later moved on to research and teaching in the fields of plasma physics. Alfvén made many contributions to plasma physics, including theories describing the behavior of aurora, 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. He was a Nobel laureate for his work on the theory of magnetohydrodynamics.

In 1934, Alfvén taught physics at both the University of Uppsala and the Nobel Institute for Physics in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1937, he argued that if plasma pervaded the universe, it could then carry electric currents capable of generating a galactic magnetic field. In 1940, he became professor of electromagnetic theory and electrical measurements at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. In 1945, he acquired the non-appointive position of Chair of Electronics (title changed to Chair of Plasma Physics in 1963). In 1954-1955, Alfvén was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Maryland, College Park. Alfvén left Sweden in 1967 and moved to the United States. He worked in the departments of electrical engineering at both the University of California, San Diego and the University of Southern California.

Alfvén considered himself an electrical engineer foremost. 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). 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’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 and was often forced to publish his papers in obscure journals.

Alfvén was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1970 for his work with magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). He was awarded the Bowie medal by the American Geophysical Union for his work on comets and plasmas in the solar system. He was also awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1967, the Gold Medal of the Franklin Institute in 1971, and the Lomonosov Gold Medal of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1971.

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