Articles | Volume 29, issue 7
Regular paper
04 Jul 2011
Regular paper |  | 04 Jul 2011

The choice of the concept of magnetic field lines or of electric current lines: Alfvén medal lecture

S.-I. Akasofu

Abstract. In 1967, at the Birkeland Symposium in Sandefjord, Norway, Professor Hannes Alfvén stated that the second approach (in solving unsolved problems by the standard MHD theory) to cosmic electrodynamics is to "thaw" the "frozen-in" magnetic field lines. "We can illustrate essential properties of the electromagnetic state of space either by depicting the magnetic field lines or by depicting electric current lines," he said. There has been much progress in space physics since the Birkeland Symposium more than 40 years ago, but unfortunately our scientific community has not really succeeded in thawing the frozen-in field lines. Instead, it has pursued magnetic reconnection, a concept that Alfvén had been critical of. It is shown here that we have to study many unsolved problems and problems thought to be solved in terms of both the magnetic field line concept and the current system concept. In taking Alfvén's approach, we must consider the whole system, including the power supply (dynamo process) and its transmission and distribution (electric currents) and observed phenomena (power dissipation processes). Such a consideration can provide physical insight into many of our unsolved problems and problems thought to be solved. In this paper, we consider substorm onset processes, the substorm current system, sunspots, solar flares, coronal mass ejections, the interplanetary current sheet, and the magnetic field configuration of the heliosphere in terms of the current system concept. In particular, it is shown that a study of the current system is essential in substorm studies, more than changes of the magnetic field configuration in the magnetotail.