This post is also available in: Español
Hannes Alfv�n was one of the outstanding minds of the twentieth century and will, one day, be ranked with Einstein as one who changed our view of the universe. It was a great privilege to have known him.
Alfv�n was the founder of the modern field of plasma physics, the study of electrically conducting gases. Plasma is the dominant state of matter in the universe, although it is rare on earth—stars, galaxies and the space between them are filled with plasma. Plasmas have widespread applications in technology, the most exciting being their potential use in controlled thermonuclear fusion, a potentially clean, cheap and unlimited source of energy. Alfv�n’s ideas and research in studying the behaviour of plasma are routinely used in the many applications of plasma physics, as is shown by the many concepts that bear his name—Alfv�n wave, Alfv�n speed, Alfv�n limit and so on.
But Alfv�n’s most significant contribution to science is his daring reformulation of cosmology, his critique of the Big Bang, and his posing of an alternative, the plasma universe—an evolving universe without beginning or end.
To Alfv�n, the most critical difference between his approach and that of the Big Bang cosmologists was one of method. “When men think about the universe, there is always a conflict between the mythical and the empirical scientific approach,” he explained. “In myth, one tries to deduce how the gods must have created the world, what perfect principle must have been used.” This, he said, is the method of conventional cosmology today: to begin from a mathematical theory, to deduce from that theory how the universe must have begun, and to work forward from the beginning to the present-day cosmos. The Big Bang fails scientifically because it seeks to derive the present, historically formed universe from a hypothetical perfection in the past. All the contradictions with observation stem from this fundamental flaw.
The other method is the one Alfv�n himself employed. “I have always believed that astrophysics should be the extrapolation of laboratory physics, that we must begin from the present universe and work our way backward to progressively more remote and uncertain epochs.” This method begins with observation—observation in the laboratory, from space probes, observation of the universe at large, and derives theories from that observation rather than beginning from theory and pure mathematics.
According to Alfv�n, the evolution of the universe in the past must be explicable in terms of the processes occurring in the universe today; events occurring in the depths of space can be explained in terms of phenomena we study in the laboratory on earth. Such an approach rules out such concepts as an origin of the universe out of nothingness, a beginning to time, or a Big Bang. Since nowhere do we see something emerge from nothing, we have no reason to think this occurred in the distant past. Instead, plasma cosmology assumes that, because we now see an evolving, changing universe, the universe has always existed and always evolved, and will exist and evolve for an infinite time to come.
Alfv�n developed a broad and sweeping critique of modern cosmology from this methodological viewpoint and situated it in an historical context that he termed the “cosmological pendulum”: the idea that over the millennia cosmology has alternated between a scientific and mythical outlook. The myths of early peoples were succeeded by the scientific efforts of the Ionians and early Greeks, but then the pendulum swung back to the myth of mathematical perfection of Ptolomy and Plato, mixed in with the Creation myths of the later Christians. These in turn yielded to the renewal of science in the sixteenth century, to be followed by the revival of myth in the twentieth, and the battle for a scientific cosmology in the present. Alfv�n saw the present day cosmologists’ fascination with mathematical perfection as the root of their mythical approach. “The difference between myth and science is the difference between divine inspiration of ‘unaided reason’ on the one hand and theories developed in observational contact with the real world on the other. [It is] the difference between the belief in prophets and critical thinking, between Credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd—Tertullian.) and De omnibus est dubitandum (Everything should be questioned—Descartes.). To try to write a grand cosmical drama leads necessarily to myth. To try to let knowledge substitute ignorance in increasingly large regions of space and time is science.”
Since the universe is overwhelmingly made up of plasma, Alfv�n reasoned that plasma phenomena, the phenomena of electricity and magnetism, not just gravity, must be dominant in shaping the evolution of the universe. He demonstrated in concrete theories how vast currents and magnetic fields shaped the solar system and the galaxies. As space-based telescopes and sensors revealed this plasma universe, ideas that he pioneered became more and more accepted. Yet even today, his broadest conceptions of cosmology remain those of a controversial minority. But his idea of an infinite, evolving universe is the only one that corresponds to what we know of evolution on the physical, biological and social level.
Alfv�n was a politically engaged scientist, highly active in the international disarmament movement and in issues of energy policy, and, as in his scientific work, he often ran afoul of the powers that be. For example, in the mid-sixties, Sweden began to consider a national policy for nuclear power research and development, an issue Alfv�n felt well qualified to deal with, as a leading researcher not only in the space science but in fusion as well. Alfv�n rapidly became involved in a increasingly heated debate with government policy makers. He felt that the Swedish plan completely underestimated the contribution fusion could make to solving the energy problem and underfunded the research required. He was equally critical of the specific plans for a nuclear reactor, scorning them as technically unfeasible and misguided. He found himself at odds with local bureaucrats, and their hostility towards him was not softened when his technical critique of the reactor turned out to be well founded. (It was later converted to conventional power.)
Alfv�n’s relations with government policy makers fell still lower in 1966 when he published a brief, but biting political-scientific satire called The Great Computer. The theme of the piece, written under the pseudonym Olaf Johannesson, was the future takeover of the planet by computers. While the general idea was a popular one among science fiction writers, Alfv�n used it as a vehicle not only to ridicule the growing infatuation of government and business with the then novel power of computer, but to pillory a large part of the Swedish establishment. In the novel, Alfv�n made it clear that it was the greed of the corporate leaders, the shortsightedness of the government bureaucrats and the power hunger of the politicians that led to the future he wryly outlined as an utopia—for the computers. In modern Sweden, a state run by an alliance of government bureaucrats, politicians and corporate leaders, Alfv�n’s broad satire did not endear him to those already nettled by his sharp nuclear policy critiques.
By 1967, Alfv�n’s relations with those running the Swedish scientific establishment had sufficiently soured, especially over the reactor plans, that he decided to leave Sweden. “They told me that my funding would be severely cut unless I supported the reactor,” he recalls. He was instantly offered chairs at both Soviet and US universities. After a two month stay in the Soviet Union, he moved to America, winding up at the University of California at San Diego. Eventually he alternated between Sweden and the US, remaining scientifically active up until a few years before his death in April, 1995.
Alfv�n was recognised for his contributions to the foundation of plasma physics by being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1970. But his broadest contributions to cosmology and to the human view of our universe are not yet fully appreciated, since they still conflict with the dominant orthodoxy of the Big Bang and the mathematical-mythological approach to cosmology. In time, however, Alfv�n will be viewed as the Galileo of the late twentieth century.
Eric J. Lerner,
New Jersey, 8th May 1995
(Copyright � 1991, 1995 Eric J. Lerner)