30 May 2008

A pictorial tribute

a great scientist, a genuine humanitarian, and a remarkable human being

Hannes Olof-Gösta Alfvén (1908 - 1995)

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Bibhas De

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May 30, 2008 marks the birth centennial of Nobel Prizewinning Swedish physicist Hannes Alfvén. This site is a pictorial tribute to him, composed of material culled from the Internet as well as from private files. You can read a biography of Hannes Alfvén here.

Marc Chagall: Bouquet pour ...


(Image source: Arrhenius - nobelprize.org; Klein - www.kosmologika.net)

The legendary scientist Svante Arrhenius had a most illustrious student, physicist Oskar Klein. Klein's student was Hannes Alfvén. Interestingly, Alfvén would come to be a close collaborator of Gustaf Arrhenius, grandson of Svante Arrhenius.

(Image sourse: nobelprize.org)
The famed Swedish physicist (Nobel Laureate) Manne Siegbahn was also a teacher to Hannes Alfvén

(Image source: answers.com)

The noted Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén was Hannes Alfvén's uncle.

Stories about Hannes Alfvén
(Contributed by Carl-Gunne Fälthammar)


(Image courtesy Carl-Gunne Fälthammar)

Hannes Alfvén as a child reading a book on Popular Astronomy by Camille Flammarion.

According to Hannes’ own account, two childhood experiences had a significant influence on his intellectual development and scientific career. One was a book on popular astronomy by Camille Flammarion, which he was given at a young age and which kindled a lifelong fascination with astronomy and astrophysics.

(Image courtesy pictorial.com, image by ©Bettmann/CORBIS)

Sixteenth century woodcut of a man exploring the meeting of the Earth and the Sky, by Camille Flammarion.

The other experience was that he joined the school’s radio club where he was an active member and built radio receivers. This instilled in him a profound interest in electronics. Therefore, as a scientist, Hannes was inclined to look at astrophysical problems from an electromagnetic point of view, and this turned out to be very fruitful. When his book Cosmical Electrodinamics was published in 1950, one of the reviewers, T. G. Cowling, referred to him as “an electrical engineer in Stockholm”.

(Image courtesy Carl-Gunne Fälthammar)

Pages from 15-year-old Hannes Alfvén’s notebook (click to enlarge)

[Photo: Professor Polidore Swings (1906-1983), Belgian astrophysicist]
Hannes Alfvén receives his Ph. D.


(Image source: nobelprize.org)
In his meeting with Arthur H. Compton at a conference in London about 1934, they discussed Alfvén's recently published paper on cosmic radiation, a paper with which Alfvén himself was not happy. Compton said: "Don't give it up too easily." Later Alfvén was to write about this meeting: "As he was one of the great authorities on cosmic radiation this was an enormous encouragement to me. In retrospect this may have been the trigger which brought me into astrophysics. It happened at a time when almost everybody was running towards nuclear physics. It saved me from the guilt associated with atomic bombs and nuclear energy which every nuclear physicist of today must feel at the bottom of his heart."

(Source: lbl.gov)

Alfvén had enough of an association with Edward Teller to write with him one or two papers on cosmic radiation. Later Alfvén wrote about his first encounter with Teller at a talk given by the latter: "It was the first time I heard Teller and did not know that this dynamic personality always makes everybody laugh – independent of whether he speaks about his dear atomic bombs or astrophysics."

(Image courtesy http://th.physik.uni-frankfurt.de)

The former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion met Albert Einstein. The two hit it off famously. They had a great meeting of minds.

Sometime after this, Hannes Alfvén was brought to the presence of Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. The latter was curious about this young Swedish scientist who was being much talked about. After a good chat, Ben Gurion came right to the point: "Do you believe in God?"

Now, Hannes Alfvén was not quite prepared for this. So he considered his answer for a few brief seconds. But Ben-Gurion took his silence to be a "No." So he said: "Better scientist than you believes in God."

(As told by Hannes Alfvén to Asoka Mendis)

(Image courtesy: http://www-lgit.obs.ujf-grenoble.fr/users/talbouss/public_html/RECHERCHE/WebAlfven/images/youngAlfven.jpg)

Young Hannes Alfvén

Stories about Hannes Alfvén
(Contributed by Carl-Gunne Fälthammar)


(Image courtesy http://th.physik.uni-frankfurt.de/ )

Lord P. M. S. Blackett, Nobel Prizewinning British physicist

Hannes Alfvén discovered and laid down the foundations of the science of Magnetohydrodynamics. This subject combines the complexities of electromagnetism and hydrodynamics. Thus, in short hand:

Electromagnetism + Hydrodynamics = Magnetohydrodynamics.

The 1948 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Lord Blackett, used to express this to his students as follows:

“Electromagnetism is difficult, hydrodynamics is very difficult, but magnetohydrodynamics is damn difficult.”


For most of his professional life, Alfvén's scientific home in Sweden was the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm. Here he nurtured many a young mind – each special in his or her own way. The following two exemplify:

(Image source: Fälthammar - www.ee.kth.se; Fälthammar and Alfvén - Carl-Gunne Fälthammar)
Above left: Professor Carl-Gunne Fälthammar; right: Hannes Alfvén with Carl-Gunne Fälthammar at a press conference arranged by the Swedish Science Research Council 29 August,1980.

If there is one who can be identified as Alfvén's closest protégé, colleague, friend, advisor and confidante, he would be Professor Carl-Gunne Fälthammar. The lifelong association started when Fälthammar came to Alfvén as a young graduate student. Later, the student would fill his professor's big chair at KTH. Everytime a retired Hannes Alfvén came for his six-months-a-year visit to KTH, Fälthammar moved out of his office and camped out in a small room so Alfvén could continue in the familiarity of his old "chair". The medals, awards, lectures etc that carry Alfvén's name today have been instituted through Fälthammar's tireless effort to pay homage to his teacher.

Professor Bosse Lehnert (Bo Lehnert) is an equally close scientific protégé. He reflects that side of Alfvén which is concerned with deep insight into the very basic nature of things. He has proposed ideas that go to the most fundamental questions of physics. This can be said of few physicists today.


For many years, Hannes Alfvén commuted between the US and Sweden, spending six months each year at the University of California, San Diego. Here, two of his closest collaborators, friends and confidantes were Professor Gustaf Olof-Svante Arrhenius (Swedish-born) of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Professor Devamitta Asoka Mendis (Sri Lankan-born) of the Department of Applied Physics. Alfvén discussed science with them almost on a daily basis, and socialized with them frequently.

Hannes Alfvén and Gustaf Arrhenius find a quiet corner at a party at the Mendises to talk shop.

Hannes and Kerstin Alfvén in 1972 outside their La Jolla Shores home

Jenny and Gustaf Arrhenius (1972 photo) were at the same time friends and family to the Alfvéns in La Jolla.

Hannes Alfvén and Asoka Mendis discuss a model of the cometary core
(Courtesy D. Asoka Mendis)

Stories Hannes Alfvén liked to tell


High up north in Sweden in summertime, all day long and all summer long, the sun just makes a small circles in the sky, never setting. Round and round and round it goes in the sky. Then this season ends, the sun sets and darkness returns.

In a village there, about this time a guest came to spend a few days, first time in that area. On the first dark night, he went to bed. Suddenly, he woke up with a start on hearing strange intermittent sounds from the garden outside: Whoosh, swoosh, shoo, sheesh…. The guest got most scared and woke up his host. The host told him: "Not to worry. The sunflowers are unwinding."


In the early 1970s, Hannes Alfvén had two graduate students at UCSD, Wing-Huen Ip (originally from Hong Kong) and Bibhas Ranjan De (originally from India.)

Graduation Party at the Alfvéns in La Jolla in December 1973. From left: Diana and Wing-Huen Ip, Bibhas and Gopa De.
(Hannes Alfvén would joke to Asoka Mendis: "Between the two of my graduate students, I have a grand total of four letters in the last names!")
[Photo: Kerstin Alfvén]

Hannes Alfvén's student Wing-Huen Ip is a renowned space scientist and astronomer. It has been said that he has published more papers in the internationally renowned journals Science and Nature than any other Chinese-speaking scientists. He has also held the position of Vice President of the National Central University of Taiwan. What many may not know is that he is a very fine artist - his main medium being oil painting.
[Photo courtesy: www.chinapost.com.tw]

Stories about Hannes Alfvén


In 1971 Alfvén published a remarkable paper titled Apples in a spacecraft in Science Magazine (6 August 1971). It had to do with Gravitation and Celestial Mechanics. Basically, his revolutionary new idea in Gravitation was this: Suppose there is a jetstream of particles (chunks of rocks, say) orbiting a planet. The particles in the jet stream will collide with one another. Our intuition suggests that these collisions would cause the jet stream to spread out because of diffusion. However, Alfvén showed that the jet stream would in fact become narrower and narrower. The result will be that the jet stream will eventually coalesce to one or more secondary bodies, in this case planetary satellites..

For pedagogic reasons, and also being slightly mischievous, Alfvén chose the particles to be apples (as in Newton's apple!), and he chose to place them inside an orbiting spacecraft. Then he argued as follows:

At first, the apples will be floating inside the spacecraft in the "weightless state." The dashed line represents the orbit of the spacecraft.

As the apples move around in the spacecraft, they will collide with one another, at least partially inelastically.

Each such collision will make the orbits of the colliding apples more similar. The end result will be that all the apples will line up along the orbit.

This effect has been called Negative Diffusion.

One morning in the Fall of 1971, Alfvén – just arrived from Sweden for his annual six-month stay in La Jolla - is sitting in his fourth floor office of the APIS Building in UCSD. His office door, as is usual, is closed. A student knocks and enters. He finds that Alfvén is smiling to himself, looking most amused. The student asks: "Something amusing?!" Alfvén replies: "When I published the paper, I hoped there would be rather much interest in it. There has of course been interest, but look who from!"

Alfvén then pushes towards the student a stack of printed Reprint Request cards that had arrived for this paper. They were for the most part from various universities and government laboratories. They were from such places as "Department of Agronomy", "Department of Microbiology and Immunology", "Department of Space Biology", … There is a vague recollection that there was also one from the research laboratory of a major food giant. The paper has since been entered into the database of www.pubmed.gov, a medical lieratures archive.



(Image source: Urey - www.nap.edu; Alfvén - nobelprize.org)

Some may have thought that UCSD "Upper Campus" was too small a place to hold two scientific giants: Chemist Harold C. Urey and physicist Hannes Alfvén – Nobelists both. They differed colorfully on their views on the origin of the Moon. One unverifiable story has it that some unknown individual left a message posted on the door of Alfvén's office: "Alfven, you are wrong about the Moon."
You might think that having the two giants on your Ph. D. thesis committee would give you great bragging rights. In actual fact it would not have been a good idea at all!
But when it came to the cause of peace, the two collaborated most eagerly.

Stories Hannes Alfvén liked to tell



The Finns are famously known to be quiet and reserved people. So are reportedly Finnish trolls!

In a very desolate part of Northern Finland, three companionable trolls took up lodgings on three adjacent mountain peaks. All around them was just the snowy silence. Even the snowfall did not make any sound. A hundred years passed. Then one of the trolls said: "It is nice up here!" Then another hundred years passed. The second troll responded: "Yes, it is." After that, another two hundred years passed. The third troll spoke up: "Heck! If there is going to so much talking here, I am going to move."


Kerstin and Hannes Alfvén in La Jolla, about 1971.

Alfvén in his La Jolla home with Gopa De, Janine Mendis and Bibhas De (Drs. all!).
(Photo: Kerstin Alfvén)

A typical dinner party at the Alfvéns. Alfvén is pouring wine at the head of the table. Standing near him is his friend, physicist William B. Thompson.
(Photo: Kerstin Alfvén)

This fabric art that hung in the La Jolla home of the Alfvéns was a favorite conversation piece

Hannes and Kerstin Alfvén at the Des in Houston, about 1980.

Hannes Alfvén and Gopa De the same evening.

A leisurely afternoon tea at the Alfvén home in La Jolla. Shown are (L. to R.) the Alfvéns' two visiting grandchildren, Kerstin Alfvén, Gopa De and Hannes Alfvén.


Many colleagues and friends of Hannes Alfvén collaborated to produce a Festschrift honoring him on his 80th birthday, 30 May 1988.

The Festschrift.

Hannes Alfvén acknowledges the tribute (This is the obverse of a picture postcard Alfvén sent to Bibhas and Gopa De.)

A thank-you note from Hannes Alfvén (The reverse of the same postcard.)

A most heart-warming letter!

Stories Hannes Alfvén liked to tell

(A commentary on certain scientific colleagues!)

(Image source: www.clipartof.com)

During his Sunday sermons, a pastor was most concerned that his points and arguments on the scriptures clearly got through to his audience. He enunciated his reasoning most meticulously, placing the proper intonation and the right emphasis and the clearing-of-the-throat at just the right points.

One day, someone got to see the pastor's personal copy of the Bible. It was copiously annotated in the margins on how to speak and where to place emphasis! Repeatedly, there was this particular instruction written: "This is a very weak argument. Shout at the top of your voice."


A letter from rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun to Hannes Alfvén
(Courtesy D. Asoka Mendis)

(Courtesy http://cui.unige.ch/isi/sscr/phys/L-Alfven.jpg)
Antimatter for Peace!

Sir Francis Harry Compoton Crick tried to lend a helping hand!

The big, fat Alfven-Arrhenius book!

Stories Hannes Alfvén liked to tell


[When China opened up in the 1970s following social reforms, the Alfvéns were among the early foreigners invited to visit China. The following story is slightly embellished – but only slightly.]

(Image source: www.50plushealth.co.uk)

Hannes and Kerstin Alfvén had a very good visit in China, and appreciated the warm hospitality there. They were particularly interested in population planning, and were able to learn for themselves what methods were being implemented.

In one of the cities, Shanghai say, Hannes unmindfully pushed his bedroom slippers under the bed before he went to sleep. They left the hotel the following morning, and forgot to pack the out-of-view slippers. No big inconvenience. One could after all do without bedroom slippers.

The Alfvéns continued their tour, traveling from city to city. Eventually, they came to Beijing, finished their tour and caught the outbound flight. The engines started and the flight crew was about to close the door. Suddenly, there came running – huffing and puffing – a Chinese government official. He used his authority to enter the plane. He made his way to where the Alfvéns were seated, and offered with his both hands a paper package. The bedroom slippers from Shanghai! The official explained that they were trying to catch up with the visitors from city to city, and was glad to finally catch up with them here. He also apologized profusely for the inconvenience the visitor suffered as a guest in his country.


Alfvén's academic books

Alfvén's non-academic books


(Courtesy: http://www.th.physik.uni-frankfurt.de/~jr/gif/stamps/sm_alfven2.jpg)

(Courtesy: http://th.physik.uni-frankfurt.de/~jr/gif/stamps/stamp_alfven.jpg)

(Courtesy: http://th.physik.uni-frankfurt.de/~jr/gif/stamps/sm_alfven.jpg)

Stories about Hannes Alfvén


(Image source: nobelprize.org)

Nobel prizewinning Russian physicist/astrophysicist Vitaly Lazarevich Ginzburg – a giant of Russian science

(Image source: "Memoirs of a Dissident Scientist" by Hannes Alfvén, American Scientist, vol. 76, May-June 1988)


The Alfvén Medal is awarded by the European Geophysical Society
(Courtesy: www-lgit.obs.ujf-grenoble.fr/users/talbouss/public_html/RECHERCHE/WebAlfven/images/hannes_alfven_medal.jpg)

The Alpha-Centauri Medal was conceived by Hannes Alfvén, for award to the first person who proves whether this star is made of matter or antimatter. A physical medal was actually produced, and placed in the custody of the American Geophysical Union.
(Courtesy: EOS)

The Alfvén Lectures are hosted by the Royal Institue of Technology, Stockholm
(Image source: www.mpe.mpg.de)

Professor Dr. Friedrich Wagner of the Max-Planck Institute is one of the winners of the Alfvén Prize, awarded by the European Physical Society (not to be confused with the Alfven Prize named after the uncle!)
(Image source: http://www.energy2050.se/)

The Alfvén Laboratory is in the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm
(Image source: www.alfvenlab.kth.se)

Asteroid 1778 Alfven

A heavenly body named after Hannes Alfvén (A Main-belt asteroid, discovered on September 26, 1960 by PLS at Palomar Observatory)


In his personal copy of his 1954 book ON THE ORIGIN OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM, Alfvén wrote things in pencil. On this diagram, it appears that he was trying out his theory of the "Hetegonic Shadow" effect on the Asteroidal Belt.


One of Hannes Alfvén's principal and lifelong scientific interests was the origin of the Solar System. In this area he collaborated with Gustaf Arrhenius, and their joint effort came to be known as the Alfvén-Arrhenius Theory. Among their contemporary rival theorists was Harvard professor A. G. W. Cameron. Below are cartoons of these two theories by an unknown artist (Anybody know?).

Stories Hannes Alfvén liked to tell

(in Alfvén's own words)

(Image source: www.anl.gov)

My brief visit to Chicago in 1948 had also another consequence. One of the members of the seminar was Enrico Fermi, who got interested in the origin of cosmic rays. After the seminar he asked me to explain what the magnetohydrodynamic waves were. Since I published my first paper in 1942 very few people – with Lyman Spitzer and Martin Schwarzschild as the most prominent exceptions – had believed in them. I got letters from colleagues who asked me whether I had not understood that this was nonsense. …

Fermi listened to what I said about them for five or ten minutes, and then he said: "Of course such waves could exist." Fermi had such an authority that if he said "of course" today, every physicist said "of course" tomorrow.

(From: "Memoirs of a Dissident Scientist" by Hannes Alfvén, American Scientist, vol. 76, May-June 1988)


(Image source: Poster – Amazon.com; Russian script – blog.rodo.com; model – fantastic-plastic.com)

Hannes Alfvén discovered the science of Magnetohydrodynamics.
The 1990 movie thriller The HuntxforxRedxOctober was premised on a novel submarine propulsion system called the magnetohydrodynamic or "caterpillar" drive. Look at the big tank-like thing underneath the submarine. It may be just a stand for the model, but there should be something like this. Here, seawater passed through a tunnel (as air in a jet engine), forced by crossed electric and magnetic fields that have been set up within the tunnel. As the water is forced through the tunnel, the submarine is pushed forward, much like a jet plane.


(Image source: Rotblat – nobelprize.org; Russell – http://uk.geocities.com/priyasaravan/; Eaton – pugwash.org)

The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs were conceived jointly by Sir Joseph Rotblat and Sir Bertrand Russell. Their idea was realized through the financial help of wealthy businessman Cyrus Eaton. Hannes Alfvén was President of the Pugwash Conferences from 1970 to 1975, at a time the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists remained precariously poised (India exploded her first nuclear device):

(Image Source: brittgillette.com)

(Image source: wikimedia.org)

Alfvén was a friend to Rotblat and met Eaton. Whether or not he knew Bertrand Russell is not known. Alfvén was also involved, as a contributor, with the Bulletin. In 1995, Rotblat and the Pugwash Conferences jointly received the Nobel Prize for Peace.

(Image source; fao.org)

The erstwhile Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme ran his campaign on a strong antinuclear platform on the advice of Alfvén (and won.)

(Image source: pugwash.org)

In an IAEA Conference on nuclear power in Salzburg, Austria in May 1977, Hannes Alfvén - the only person with a nonnuclear stand - publicly debated Hans Bethe (above), a major player in nuclear weaponry. Alfvén did so in presence of all the gathered high and mighty, government "nuclear" officials from around the world. Such is how gutsy Hannes Alfvén was, and such is how genuine his humanism was. Years later, Bethe himself would take a stance similar to Alfvén's, and become a peace-lover.

Hannees Alfvén with necklace of feathers. This picture was taken at La Jolla Shores January 28, 1986, when Hannes had just returned from a peace research conference inaugurating the United Nations Year of Peace (1986) at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.
( Courtesy Carl-Gunne Fälthammar)


Hannes Alfvén's role in the peace movement is not widely known. The following few items of correspondence show how, those who were or are well-known in the World stage, were in touch with him and relied on him.

[The originals of these letters are kept in the personal files of Alfvén archived at the Geisel Library of the University of California, San Diego. Thanks are due to Professor Asoka Mendis for hosting me at UCSD.]

Peace Nobelist Elie Wiesel to Hannes Alfvén:

French President Francois Mitterrand to Hannes Alfvén:

Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme to Hannes Alfvén:

Hannes Alfvén to Swedish Prime Minister Thorbjörn Fälldin and others:

Peace Nobelist Joseph Rotblat to Hannes Alfvén:

Peace Nobelist Joseph Rotblat to Hannes Alfvén:


A rare glimpse at Hannes Alfvén the private person:
In this letter, he responds to a request from Bibhas De to write something about his life and work.

Hugo Alfvén and Hannes Alfvén are not the only famous Alfvéns! Some may not have heard of them, but know well about the famed author Inger Alfvén, daughter of Hannes Alfvén.

Hannes Alfvén's son Gosta Alfvén is a distinguished medical researcher.

(Image source: farm1.static.flickr.com)

Before they moved to Stockholm proper, Hannes and Kerstin Alfvén lived in the suburbs, in a bucolic area in the woods. There were Swedish Gold Rain trees in these woods - much like the above in Visby - which brought great joy to them when in bloom.

Hannes and Kerstin Alfvén strolling on the beach at La Jolla Shores, January 1986.
( Courtesy Carl-Gunne Fälthammar)

Hannes and Kerstin Alfvén in their La Jolla home in 1988.

Hannes with daughter Cecilia (face obscured), granddaughter Camilla (standing) and great grandson Albin on his 86th birthday, 30th May 1994. The photo was taken at the Royal Institute of Technology on the occasion of his receiving the Dirac Medal of the University of New South Wales and the Australian Physical Society.
(Courtesy Carl-Gunne Fälthammar)

Hannes Alfvén had a deep and abiding fascination with GreenxFlash – a rare and momentary phenomenon that occurs on the horizon during the progression of sunset. He has taken many a visitor to his home for a sunset walk on the seashore of La Jolla to treat them to this wonder of nature. He claimed to have witnessed the phenomenon himself.
(Courtesy: http://www.icstars.com/Mad/Astro/GreenFlashW.jpg) .


Resting place of the Alfvéns in Djursholm, Sweden
(Courtesy: www.findgrave.com; photo: Klas Grönqvist) .