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Syun-Ichi Akasofu Profile
By Charles P. Wohlforth
All Rights Reserved
First published 10/19/97 in the Anchorage Daily News We Alaskans section
Almost 40 years after he first saw the northern lights and 30 years after he discovered their true shape and structure, Syun-Ichi Akasofu still climbs out of bed on cold Fairbanks nights to watch the weird strands and splashes of color swirl across the sky. He and his wife, Emiko, drive five minutes from home for clear viewing, then sip hot tea to stay warm through long sessions of gazing up into the sky.
Colleagues call Akasofu, 66, the world's most knowledgeable student of the aurora, but the visions from the ionosphere tell him something else.
''When I see the aurora go all across the sky, it says to me, 'You don't understand me at all,''' he said recently. ''We make progress in aurora studies, but when I watch it, it really beats me. . . . Not that I get discouraged. It's just such a complex phenomenon.''
Akasofu's major discoveries all came in about 10 years, starting in 1958, when, as a young graduate student just arrived from Japan, he began to contradict scientific conclusions about the aurora that had been set down as fact in textbooks.
Today, he has little time for research. He heads the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute, with a staff of 400 dedicated to studying the natural forces that shape Alaska and the Arctic. His reputation is assured, and he has used his status in Japan to raise millions of dollars for research and to build a new Arctic research institute that could be the equal of the Geophysical Institute next door on the UAF campus. Now his own theories are the accepted dogma described in textbooks, some of which he wrote.
But in many ways, Akasofu is still the man he was in the 1950s. He still calls for young researchers to overturn the dogma -- even though now it is his own creation. He continues to build scientific partnerships with the military in a way reminiscent of the Cold War, as the institute did from its founding. He's a booster for science and his institute in a way that recalls a more optimistic and less cynical time. And he still gets out of bed late at night to watch the aurora with wonder, excitement and curiosity.
Akasofu grew up in a Japanese village near a volcano, which originally inspired his interest in earth science, he says. He was a few days short of his 12th birthday when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. His father, a teacher of English, was forced by the government to stop teaching, then sent to Southeast Asia, not to be heard from again by his family until three years after the war ended.
''My mother, you know -- we had a very, very difficult time,'' Akasofu said. ''Even after the war, we didn't know if he was alive or not -- for a long, long time. My mother worked so hard, trying to get the money and the food, and I was watching, a kid, helpless.
''One time, it was so bad I told my mother I would quit school and work for the U.S. military, because I could speak English a little bit, and maybe work as an interpreter.''
His mother wouldn't allow him to quit. But Akasofu claims he was never a good student. As a teenager and young man, he was more interested in mountain climbing, and enjoyed the challenge of passing his exams without studying or attending class. ''If you succeed in it, you're a hero,'' he said.
Mountain climbing, and not school, brought him into the scientific field in which he spent his life. In need of money for his hobby, in 1949 he took a job with an observatory, recording changes in Earth's magnetic field caused by the aurora.
''I became curious -- what are we recording?'' he said. When a senior technician told him they were studying the northern lights, Akasofu asked, ''Why do we do this from such a long distance? Couldn't we go underneath, in Alaska?''
He assumed it would be impossible to go to Alaska personally, but he changed his field from meteorology to astrophysics and began applying himself to his studies, receiving his bachelor's degree from Tohoku University in 1953. He had finished his master's degree in 1958 when he wrote to Sydney Chapman, a famous British scientist and leading authority on the aurora at the Geophysical Institute, posing a series of questions about a paper Chapman had published.
''I had so many questions I didn't follow, so I wrote to him in Alaska, 'Could you explain these things?' I got a letter back right away: 'I can't answer these. Do you want to come to Alaska and study them as a graduate student?' And I wrote back, 'OK, fine, but I don't have any money.' Poor student. About a week later, I got a letter back from [institute] director [C.T.] Elvey with a check for the air fare.
''I feel I owe this to the university. I could go somewhere else, to some bigger schools. That's why I stay here. I told my wife, (we'll stay) only two years. Now 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. She reminds me of that sometimes.''
For a brilliant young scientist and mountaineer, studying the aurora in Alaska in the late '50s and '60s was exciting and fun. Akasofu remembers coming into Chapman's seminars still dressed in climbing gear from an ascent in the Alaska Range. Funding for research was plentiful and interest was high. The International Geophysical Year, a data-gathering effort undertaken worldwide in 1957-58, produced a huge storehouse of information for the institute to study.
''We were all young, and working in a new field, so almost anything we did was finding out new things,'' said Neil Davis, a colleague now retired. ''It was a very exciting time.''
Akasofu struggled to fit in with American culture.
''It's very, very, very difficult,'' he said. ''I am running (to understand). I am still running. And I used to tell people that watching Johnny Carson, I'm lucky if I understand 40 percent of what he's saying. And that's still the way I am.''
Davis recalled how the graduate students frequently would play pranks on each other. One day, a picture of a scantily clad woman showed up in a slide viewer where an image of the aurora should have been. But the identity of the prankster wasn't as secret as he intended: Beneath the picture, he had written the words, ''You peeking me?''
Congress founded the Geophysical Institute in 1946 specifically to study the aurora, which had caused problems for radio communications during the Aleutian Islands campaign of World War II. The research wasn't directed by the military; its purpose was to learn how the aurora worked and how it could be predicted -- issues Akasofu still studies.
Electrically charged particles streaming from the sun -- the so-called solar wind -- power the aurora. During solar flares and other events, the sun ejects extra doses of this plasma. Earth's magnetic field funnels the particles to the Arctic and Antarctic regions. In the upper atmosphere, the charged particles collide with atoms of gas floating in a near-vacuum close to space, creating the northern lights.
Each kind of gas produces a different color of light when it absorbs and then emits the energy received from the solar wind. Oxygen glows yellow-green at lower altitude, red higher up; ionized nitrogen produces blue, while neutral nitrogen contributes purplish-red borders and rippled edges. Neon signs exploit the same phenomenon to produce colored light, passing electricity through gases in a near vacuum.
When Akasofu started watching the aurora, he asked why it seemed to move from north to south over Fairbanks. Institute director Elvey's explanation, that it was because Fairbanks was near the southern side of the auroral zone, didn't make sense when Akasofu found the same thing happened in Fort Yukon and Barrow. He suggested aurora activity was oval-shaped -- a theory affirmed when a satellite captured a picture of the shape in 1982.
But Akasofu's most important discovery, according to Davis, was the concept of the auroral substorm. ''That's one of the three or four major discoveries in the field,'' he said.
The generally accepted theory maintained that the aurora was basically stable, but that it appeared to change through the night in a predictable pattern of building and declining intensity because of the rotation of Earth. During the Geophysical Year, 100 cameras were set up around the world to record the aurora simultaneously. The films were stored at the Geophysical Institute, and Akasofu sat down to watch them. It soon became clear to him that the textbook explanation was wrong.
Akasofu found that in some locations the patterns repeated three times in a night; obviously, the world hadn't turned three times. And he had films from widely separated locations where the same changes occurred at roughly the same time. Working with mentor Sydney Chapman, he developed a theory that substorms -- activity within an auroral storm -- developed and propagated quickly around the globe.
A paper announcing the finding was rejected by the Journal of Geophysical Research. Akasofu's discovery simply was not believed. To prove his point, he persuaded NASA and the Air Force to fly him in a jet around the northern part of the globe, at the same speed as the rotation of the earth, so that he could remain at midnight for several hours at a time. The films he made on the flights clearly showed his theory was correct -- the aurora changed instead of remaining stable, as the previous theory predicted.
In 1964, Akasofu's paper on the auroral substorm was published, and is still the standard explanation of how the aurora changes.
In the meantime, Akasofu and Chapman had found another problem with the standard explanation of the aurora. According to the accepted theory, the intensity of the solar wind controlled the aurora -- more solar wind, more aurora. But their research showed that the two didn't relate perfectly. In 1962, they jointly published a paper calling for a search for an ''unknown quantity'' to explain this problem. Again, scientists resisted the challenge to dogma. Akasofu has written that Chapman, despite his stature, was advised by colleagues to drop the work or risk ruining his scientific reputation.
It was only in the 1980s that various scientists finally answered the puzzle: The magnetic fields of the earth and sun must line up and join together in order to funnel enough plasma into the atmosphere to create an aurora. A solar flare alone is not enough if the magnetic fields aren't lined up properly.
Today, besides working on predicting the disturbances created by solar flares and magnetic storms, Akasofu writes papers on what his experiences taught him about how scientific discoveries occur.
''What we call truth is not really truth,'' he said. ''It's just an idea agreed (upon) by a large number of people. . . . There's always an uncertainty there. Then there may be a new observation that doesn't fit here. Many people find these things, but they are afraid to say so, because this paradigm is so popular. You could be laughed at. But suppose this guy sticks to it and collects more evidence and comes up with his own hypothesis. This guy of course will struggle, because at first most people will not believe it. But eventually they will have to step up to it.
''This repeats every several years. Hopefully we are approaching the real truth. But you don't know. Often science goes backward.''
Akasofu attributes his own success to being too naive to know what questions he wasn't supposed to ask, and the optimism and persistence not to give up when he thought he was right.
''The most important task for a scientist is to listen carefully to nature,'' Akasofu once wrote. ''If he hears something of which he is fairly confident, he should keep pursuing it and construct his own model. He should not concern himself with the feelings of others, even if they disregard, misunderstand or ridicule him. It may take him 10 or 20 years, but eventually a correct observation may emerge above the general noise level.
''Do not forget that nature is infinitely complicated. Never have an illusion that one will ever have a complete understanding of it.''
Akasofu stood in a conference room recently with a half a dozen institute professors waiting for a military delegation. He was the only one wearing a tie. American-born seismologists, atmospheric theorists and computer scientists wore the casual clothes that would fit in anywhere in Fairbanks.
While Akasofu industriously reviewed his slides, the others sipped coffee and chatted.
''Most of us run on food. Syun works on nuclear fuel,'' said Glenn Shaw, an older scientist whose work concerns how small particles affect clouds in global warming.
Akasofu seems busy every minute of the day. He arrives in his office at 8:30 a.m., goes home around 6:30 p.m. and often works after dinner until midnight at home. Besides publishing two or three scientific papers a year, he is working on two books and helping construct a computer model to predict disruption to communications and space equipment caused by solar flares. He travels extensively on fund-raising trips and speaks frequently, including talks to local Rotary Clubs as a booster for the institute. He encourages other professors to talk to local groups, too, something they initially resisted.
''You know how professors are -- when we first heard about that we thought, 'How sophomoric,' '' Shaw said. ''And now I think it's great. It really works.''
The military men arrived in a flood -- a dozen of them, led by a Pentagon-based general who oversees weather prediction for the Air Force. Akasofu somewhat nervously reviewed the institute's branches and resources: the space physics group, the atmospheric science group, the ice group, the volcano group, the earthquake group. ''We claim to study everything from the sun to the center of the earth,'' he said.
When he mentioned his own work to predict the impact of solar flare shock waves, the general was noticeably excited. ''It predicts that? That's exactly what we need to protect our global positioning satellites,'' he said. But his interest waned when Akasofu admitted he can predict only minutes ahead of the plasma's impact.
Most of his talk was about keeping aircraft and volcanic ash apart. In December 1989, the Geophysical Institute predicted the eruption of Redoubt Volcano southwest of Anchorage nine hours before it occurred. Jubilation over their success evaporated, however, when they learned that, despite their prediction, a fully loaded KLM jumbo jet had been allowed to fly into the volcanic plume. All its engines shut down and it almost crashed.
After that, Akasofu proposed a project to predict the location of volcanic plumes, which don't show up on radar and are easily obscured by clouds. He said U.S. government agencies all turned him down for funding, each refusing responsibility for the problem. U.S. and Alaska-based airlines also refused to contribute. So Akasofu went back to Japan and raised the money for the project there -- $90,000 initially -- largely from Japanese airlines.
Geophysical Institute scientists developed a computer program that can predict the location and altitude of ash plumes within minutes of an eruption. It has been used several times to divert aircraft crossing the Pacific to safe courses, and constantly keeps an eye on volcanoes from Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula to the Pacific Northwest.
Akasofu has been as far as Indonesia trying to raise money to expand the use of the model to other volcano-infested regions, without success. Now the Air Force might get involved, providing data and predictions for the whole world. The generals seemed impressed touring the small office where a researcher runs the program on a desktop computer and feeds it to a secure site on the World Wide Web. One of the officers mentioned the model also could be used to predict the path of a chemical or biological plume on the battlefield, a comment which fell somewhat flat.
The institute has many projects of interest to the military. The most controversial has been the High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, or HAARP, which seeks to beam radio waves into the ionosphere and create an artificial aurora. HAARP has long interested the institute as a mechanism for basic research. At the same time, the military sees practical applications that might grow out of HAARP research. One would use the aurora to communicate with submerged submarines. HAARP's strongest critics speculate that the military might even try to extend the technology into a weapons program that could modify the weather or damage the environment, a claim HAARP scientists dismiss as outlandish.
Some of the critics don't understand the physical science that limits HAARP, Akasofu says. Still, he admits working with the military carries risks.
''We've got to be very, very careful what we cooperate with them on,'' he said. ''Of course, we would like to contribute to the national defense, too, as much as we can.''
Akasofu's energetic and unorthodox fund-raising sometimes has led him into other controversies. Instead of following the path of peer review and official competition to get federal funding, he has a habit of going right to the top: Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.
In 1990, Stevens appropriated $25 million for a supercomputer on the Fairbanks campus. Critics writing in the Washington Post and Science magazine ridiculed the purchase as a gross example of pork-barrel spending, charging that the institute never would have gotten the Cray computer in the normal competitive process and wouldn't be able to fully use it. They speculated that Akasofu had given Stevens the bizarre idea that the aurora could be used to produce commercial electricity.
''I could tell you about the time when the University of Alaska came to me and said it might be possible to bring the aurora to Earth, (that) we might be able to harness the energy in the aurora,'' Stevens told a 1990 Senate hearing, according to the Post article.
Akasofu denies he ever told Stevens any such thing. And he defends the decision to place the supercomputer in Fairbanks, where it's become an integral part of the university, he says.
Today, the Cray computer at the Arctic Regions Supercomputing Center is in use 93 percent of the time, information officer L.J. Evans says. Seventy percent of the time is set aside for nonclassified work by Department of Defense researchers, who connect to the machine from all over the United States. Much of the balance is used by UAF scientists working on computer models to predict changes in global climate, sea ice, glacier movement and -- in Akasofu's own area -- space weather, or changes in the solar wind.
When he took over as director in 1986, the Geophysical Institute's annual budget was about $10 million. Today, it is closer to $25 million. Only about $3 million comes from the state; the balance comes from grants and contracts, mostly from federal scientific agencies, with the largest portion provided by NASA.
''I don't think any other organization, even private entrepreneurs, can do that -- seven times more,'' Akasofu said. A saying is posted on the wall of his office: ''Research rings cash registers in town.''
But those figures don't reflect his most impressive fund-raising achievement: the new International Arctic Research Center, a $30 million building scheduled for completion in 1999. With the help of Vice President Al Gore, who in March signed a ''common agenda'' for Arctic climate research in Tokyo, Akasofu obtained 60 percent of the funding for the institute from Japanese sources. Scientific agencies from Japan and the United States already have committed to support and use the center, which Akasofu hopes eventually will have a budget equal to the Geophysical Institute.
In the past, Japanese government and industry officials have given money for academic chairs at the institute and helped fund communications research at its Poker Flat Research Range rocket base. Akasofu said his knowledge of Japanese language and culture helps him lobby agencies there. But Davis, his former colleague, said Akasofu's high status in Japan makes the difference.
In 1985, Emperor Hirohito invited Akasofu to give him a private lecture on the aurora. Hirohito had a strong interest in the subject, and after a two-hour talk asked a long series of questions. Akasofu said the emperor, who died in 1989, helped spark the interest of the Japanese people in the aurora, even though it is extremely rare at Japan's latitude.
''It was a very intense conversation,'' Akasofu said.
For a man who left Japan a graduate student 30 years earlier, and whose family still lives in the village where he grew up, it was a triumphant return. Yet Akasofu still maintains the spirit of discovery he had when he was a young researcher asking naive questions. In a recent paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research -- the same publication that in the 1960s refused to publish the paper in which Akasofu announced his most important discovery -- he demanded that other new researchers come forward to overturn his own theories in the same way he did the theories of his seniors.
''However popular a particular theory is, it will eventually fail,'' he wrote. ''Thus, the longer and firmer a particular theory is believed, the longer the advance of its field is stalled. . . . In fact, it may be because the auroral substorm scheme proposed in my 1964 paper is still used in 1995, the advance of substorm research has been slow.
''When I hear someone say magnetospheric physics has matured and that the only thing left to do is a computer simulation study, I think it indicates the limit of that person's ability, not the limit of magnetospheric physics.''
Speaking in his office, Akasofu put it simply: ''My job now is to try to help young Turks.''