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A Brief History of Plasma I    
     
Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917), Norway    
     

Birkeland was amongst the first to speculate that the Northern Lights were charged particles ejected from the Sun, captured by the Earth's magnetic field, and directed towards the polar atmosphere. To prove this theory, Birkeland performed his famous 'Terella' experiment, where he artificially created the aurora in the laboratory. His theories were initially laughed at, and it is only now in the space age that measurements from satellites are proving Birkeland correct.

Significantly, his approach to science was broad, comprising observation and laboratory experimentation in addition to mathematical modelling. He was not content with a merely theoretical approach, despite having trained as a mathematician.

He is probably Norway's greatest ever scientist, and many of his works are still used as reference materials. The electric currents that flow from space are named after him -- Birkeland currents. He is recognised for bringing Plasma and Electromagnetism into Cosmology, but while many of his ideas are widely accepted, his cosmological theories are less well known. He died aged 49 just when a working committee was in the process of nominating him for the Nobel Prize in Physics.

  Kristian Birkeland
     
Sydney Chapman (1888-1970) was regarded as a leader in the field of interplanetary magnetospheric physics for a while after the death of Birkeland. He took an approach very similar to that of Big Bangers, relying heavily on mathematical models, and refused to even discuss many of Birkeland's ideas. According to his models, currents were confined to a sphere that extended little beyond the Earth. He failed to recognise the complex three dimensional relationship between the Earth's magnetosphere and the currents flowing from the Sun. He proposed, in contradistinction to Birkeland's ideas, that currents were restricted to the ionosphere, and that the Earth moved through a vacuum. He was wrong.   "Gravitational systems are the 'ashes' of prior electrical systems." Hannes Alfven
     
Irving Langmuir (1881-1957), USA    
     

Langmuir (1881-1957) was the first to use the term 'Plasma' in 1927, borrowing it from Blood Plasma to describe the almost life-like and self-organising behaviours of a plasma when in the presence of electrical currents and magnetic fields.

He discovered Plasma Sheathes, now called Double Layers, having observed the electrons and ions of a plasma separating during experimentation. DLs are one of the most important features of plasma behaviour.

He also defined and explained the term 'valence' as part of his description of the atom. Few textbooks, however, recognise the influence that Langmuir had on the development of our understanding of the nature of the atom.

He became the first 'non-academic' chemist to receive the Nobel Prize, an accomplishment he realised in 1932. Langmuir probes, which can be used in space, are named after him.

  Irving Langmuir
     
Hannes Alfven (1908-1995) - The Father of modern Plasma Physics, Sweden    
     

Alfven (1908-1995) is generally regarded as the Father of modern Plasma Physics. He continued the work of Birkeland, feeling very much in spirit with him, and eventually won a Nobel Laureate for his ground-breaking contributions. He was not always highly regarded by the scientific establishment because of his controversial ideas, however, and suffered no little condescension and ridicule in his lifetime.

In fact it now seems bizarre that he wasn't awarded the Nobel Prize until 1970, especially considering his many fundamental accomplishments. For some time he was forced to publish in journals that did not enjoy international readership. His ideas finally became known to the general scientific community through his ground-breaking book, Cosmical Electrodynamics, published by Oxford University Press in 1950.

Alfven took a practical and intuitive approach to science, insisting that theories of cosmological phenomena must agree with laboratory experiments. (The definition of 'laboratory' being broadened to include experiments in space.) Having started out as an engineer, his methods were in direct opposition to the approach generally favoured by Big Bangers, that of starting-out from idealised mathematical principles.

In 1937 Alfven proposed that our galaxy contained a large-scale magnetic field and that charged particles moved in spiral orbits within it, owing to forces exerted by the field. Plasma carried the electrical currents which create the magnetic field.

While many of Alfven's theories are now well known, like those of Birkeland, the cosmological implications of his work also remain to be fully recognised. Ironically, some have put this down to the very simplicity of many of these ideas.

 
Hannes Alfven
 
"I have never thought that you could obtain the extremely clumpy, heterogeneous universe we have today, strongly affected by plasma processes, from the smooth, homogeneous one of the Big Bang, dominated by gravitation." Alfven
     
David Bohm (1917-1992), USA    
     
Bohm was the plasma theoretician and cosmologist who discovered the instabilities and resistivity of magnetized plasmas that now bear his name.  

"The universe is an unending transformation in flux whose previous states we are not privileged to know." David Bohm

d Bohm

   
There are many others who probably should be mentioned, but this web site aims only to serve as an introduction to the emerging paradigm.
 
     

Today, a growing body of scientists, engineers, and independent researchers are continuing the work of these pioneers. They have taken up the gauntlet in defiance of some of the more entrenched thinking that still permeates the mainstream. See the links page for further details.

   
     
Summation    
     
Both Hannes Alfven and Irving Langmuir won Nobel Laureates for their work, and Kristian Birkeland probably would have done had he lived long enough. It seems unfortunate, therefore, that their work in cosmology, and the implications of their work in this field, remain largely unrecognised. Alfven's criticism of the Big Bang, it has to be said, certainly rankled with some of the powers that be.   “I have no trouble publishing in Soviet astrophysical journals, but my work is unacceptable to the American astrophysical journals.” Hannes Alfvén