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Scientific Pioneers

Hannes Alfvén

Hannes AlfvenHannes Alfvén was born in Norrkorping, Sweden in 1908. Many physical concepts that he suggested continue to inform the work of scientists who are working in the fields of plasma and space physics. Alfvén is best known for his discovery of hydrodynamic waves, in which he showed that an electromagnetic wave could move through a medium like a plasma that is highly conductive (They are also called Alfvén waves.) He was the first to suggest (in 1937) that the galaxy itself might have a magnetic field – an idea that came to be generally accepted by scientists in the 1980s.

Alfvén’s ideas were often unpopular with other scientists, as he sometimes made suggestions that contradicted established notions. Despite the struggle to gain acceptance of his theories, Alfvén was often vindicated years or decades after he first proposed them. He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1970.

Some applications of Alfvén’s research: explanations of the Van Allen radiation belts, the shrinking of Earth's magnetic field during magnetic storms, the formation of comet tails, the formation of the solar system and the dynamics of plasmas in our galaxy.