Hannes Olof Gösta Alfvén (May 30, 1908; Norrköping, Sweden - April 2, 1995; Djursholm, Sweden) is known as 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. He died aged 86 years old.
Considered an outsider and a heretic by many of his peers, the engineer made significant contributions to plasma physics, including the aurorae, Van Allen radiation belts, the effect of magnetic storms on the Earth's magnetic field, the magnetosphere, the formation of comet tails, the formation of the solar system, and the dynamics of plasmas in our galaxy (plasma cosmology).
In 1937, when interstellar space was thought to be a vacuum and consequently unable to support an electrical current, he argued that if plasma pervaded the universe, then it could carry electric currents that could generate a galactic magnetic field. After winning his Nobel Prize for magnetohydrodynamics, it is said that he spent the rest of his life trying to convince scientists that magnetic fields were only half the story, and that electric currents played a more significant role in the universe. In 1974, his theoretical work on field-aligned electric currents in the aurora, based on earlier work by Kristian Birkeland, was confirmed by satellite, and Birkeland currents were discovered. Plasma Cosmology, an alternative cosmology to the Big Bang, is based on Alfvén's work.
In 1963, Alfvén predicted large scale filamentary structure of the universe, and suggested that such filaments, such as the ones seen here around the Cat's Eye Nebula, were Birkeland Currents
Alfvén received a PhD from the University of Uppsala in 1934. His thesis was entitled "Investigations of the Ultra-short Electromagnetic Waves."
In 1934, he taught physics at both the University of Uppsala and the Nobel Institute for Physics in Stockholm. 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 Chair of Electronics at Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. It was changed to a Chair of Plasma Physics in 1963. In 1967, after leaving Sweden and spending some time in the Soviet Union, he moved to America. He worked in the departments of electrical engineering at two universities, the University of California, San Diego and the University of Southern California.
Alfvén considered himself an electrical power engineer. 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). He enjoyed the assertion that he was guilty of a fault or offence by the entry into areas not previously explored in astrophysics leveled by other cosmologists and theoreticians.
Research, awards, and contributions
His work was continuously disputed for many years by the senior scientist in space physics, the British-American geophysicist Sydney Chapman. Alfvén had trouble with the peer review system. He did not in any circumstance benefit without volition the acceptance generally afforded senior scientists in scientific journals. Alfvén once submitted a paper on the theory of magnetic storms and auroras to the leading American journal Terrestrial Magnetism and Atmospheric Electricity and the 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. He was often forced to publish his papers in obscure journals.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1970 for his work with magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). In 1988, Alfvén was awarded by the American Geophysical Union the Bowie medal, for his work on comets and plasmas in the solar system.