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Veteran Alaska scientist Akasofu honored for research breakthrough

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Posted: Friday, March 25, 2011 6:47 pm

The European Geosciences Union has awarded the 2011 Hannes Alfvén Medal to Fairbanks scientist Syun-Ichi Akasofu for his research  "establishing the substorm as a fundamental concept of magnetospheric physics."

The medal is to be presented to him at the annual meeting of the EGU in Vienna next month.

The award is given annually by the international association of scientists  to recognize an oustanding contribution to the understanding of the plasma processes in the solar system. Hannes Alfven, who was from Sweden, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1970 for his work on plasma physics. He died in 1995.

Akasofu came to Fairbanks in 1958 from Japan to study the aurora under the guidance of Sydney Chapman at the University of Alaska. He became a professor of geophysics in 1964. He served as director of the Geophysical Institute from 1986-1999 and he was the founder of the International Arctic Research Center at UAF and director from 1999-2007.

Ironically, Chapman and Alfven had major disagreements on space physics research, though they were both pioneers in the field. Akasofu even wrote a paper in 2003 titled, "Chapman and Alfven: A Rigorous Mathematical Physicist Vs. an Inspirational Experimental Physicist."

Akasofu said he looks at those battles now as comparable to arguing over which end of a pencil represents the true nature of a pencil, the point being sharp and hard and the eraser being soft and round. He said it is through such debates that science progresses, by integrating or synthesizing what appear to be contradictory observations.

Chapman was a father figure to Akasofu, but he had high regard for Alfven as well, saying he was like an uncle.

Chapman always asked that Akasofu call him Sydney, but his protege found that impossible. Eventually, Akasofu agreed that when he was half of Chapman's age he would call him by his first name.

Chapman, an early leader of the Geophysical Institute, died at age 82, not long before Akasofu would have attained the halfway point, so he was always "Dr. Chapman" to Syun. The Chapman Building at UAF is named for him.

After the Vienna conference, Akasofu plans to stop in London and visit Chapman's daughter.

In the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, a research effort that Chapmanand Chris Elvey, then the Geophysical Institute director, spent much time organizing, about 100 internationl stations with all-sky cameras were set up to photograph the aurora.

From about 30 of these cameras, Akasofu studied many miles of film, with photos taken once a minute, to try and understand auroral patterns.

"For one year I had no idea what's going on. It was an intimidating and bewlldering experience," Akasofu said. "The second year I had some idea. It took about three years."

He came up with the concept of the "aurora substorm," that the aurora was not part of a fixed daily pattern.

From studying the photos from different points around the world, Akasofu found that auroras simultaneously undergo large-scale changes, from a quiet condition to an active condition and back to a quiet condition a few times a night.

"This feature was very different from what had been believed for many years, namely that the aurora was always quiet in the evening sky, always active around midnight and always patchy in the morning,' he said.

He had wanted to call this "aurora activation" in his landmark 1964 paper, but Chapman refused to read his paper until he called it a "substorm," the name that ultimately became part of the scientific vernacular.

During a major geomagnetic storm, the auroral pattern Akasofu found occurs frequently, making it a "substorm."

Chapman, who is credited with coining the term "geomagnetism," had a knack for coming up with descriptive words, Akasofu said.

The substorm concept was controversial at first and it wasn't until the launch of the satellite Dynamic Explorer  in 1982, which took images of the aurora high above the North Pole every two minutes, offered final proof of the substorm pattern.

It wasn't easy for people to accept the idea that the aurora would go through cycles over a period of hours because until the satellite photos arrived it was impossible for an observer at a single spot to prove or disprove the theory.

 Akasofu said he has always enjoyed the give-and-take of science.

"So long as we have good debates, we can make them constructive," he said.

The geosciences union said this about Akasofu:

Syun-Ichi Akasofu received his PhD in 1961 and became professor of geophysics three years later.

He has published more than 550 professional journal articles, and has authored/coauthored 10 books. In 1981 Syun-Ichi Akasofu was named one of the "1,000 Most Cited Scientists".

In 2002 he was named one of the "World's Most Cited Authors in Space Physics" by Current Contents ISI. He has in total received 16 awards and honours from various societies, universities and establishments, such as the AGU, the Royal Astronomy Society, and the Emperor of Japan.

Syun-Ichi Akasofu's auroral work has earned international recognition. His paper on the aurora published in 1964 was cited as one of the most quoted papers. With his first book "Polar and magnetospheric Substorm" in 1968, becoming a textbook for many graduate students, Syun-Ichi Akasofu established the notion of the substorm, now a fundamental concept of magnetospheric physics.

The substorm, an explosive magnetosphere-ionosphere interaction leading to bright and lively auroral displays, is now seen as central to the dynamics of the coupling between the Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind. Magnetic field-aligned currents mediate the interaction between the solar wind, the magnetosphere and the ionosphere, whose importance Hannes Alfvén did so much emphasize.

By his achievement in establishing the substorm concept, and his other empirical contributions, Syun-Ichi Akasofu has in a substantial way helped lay the foundations for “understanding of plasma processes in the solar system and other cosmical plasma environments”, a requirement for a recipient of the Alfvén Medal.

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