views updated

AKASOFU, Syun-Ichi 1930-

PERSONAL: Born December 4, 1930, in Nagano-Ken, Japan; son of Shigenori (an English teacher) and Kumiko (maiden name, Koike) Akasofu; married Emiko Endo, September 25, 1961; children: Ken Ichi, Keiko. Education: Tohoku University, B.S., 1953, M.S. 1957; University of Alaska—Fairbanks, Ph.D., 1961.

ADDRESSES: Offıce—International Arctic Research Center, 930 Koyukuk Drive, P.O. Box 757340, Fairbanks, AK 99775-7340.

CAREER: Geophysicist and educator. Nagasaki University, Nagasaki, Japan, research assistant, 1953-55; University of Alaska—Fairbanks, research assistant, 1958-61, research geophysicist, 1961-62, associate professor, then professor of geophysics, 1962-86, director of Geophysics Institute, 1986-99; International Arctic Research Center, Fairbanks, director, 1998—.

MEMBER: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysics Union, Society of Terrestrial Magnetism and Electricity of Japan, Sigma XI.

AWARDS, HONORS: Chapman Medal, Royal Astronomical Society, 1976; John Adam Fleming Medal, American Geophysics Union, 1977; Japan Academy Award, 1977; Distinguished Alumnus, University of Alaska, 1980; Alaska Centennial Alumnus, National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, 1987; Japanese Foreign Minister Award, 1993; Edith R. Bullock Prize for Excellence, 1997.


(With D. S. Kimball) Auroral Morphology as Shown by All-Sky Photographs, Pergamon Press (New York, NY), 1965.

Polar and Magnetospheric Substorms, Springer-Verlag (New York, NY), c. 1968.

(With Sydney Chapman) Solar-Terrestrial Physics: AnAccount of the Wave and Particle Radiations from the Quiet and the Active Sun, and of the Consequent Terrestrial Phenomena, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1972.

Physics of Magnetospheric Substorms, D. Reidel (Boston, MA), c. 1977.

Aurora Borealis: The Amazing Northern Lights, Alaska Geographic Society (Anchorage, AK), 1979.

Heliomagnetism, University of Oslo (Oslo, Norway), 1992.

Exploring the Secrets of the Aurora, Kluwer Academic Publishers (Boston, MA), 2002.


(With Benson Fogle and Bernhard Haurwitz) SydneyChapman, Eighty: From His Friends, National Center for Atmospheric Research (Boulder, CO), 1968.

Dynamics of Magnetosphere: Proceedings of the A.G.U., D. Reidel (Boston, MA), 1980.

(With J. R. Kan) Physics of Auroral Arc Formations, American Geophysical Union (Washington, DC), 1981.

(With Y. Kamide) The Solar Wind and the Earth, D. Reidel (Boston, MA), 1987.

SIDELIGHTS: A world-renowned expert on the aurora borealis, Syun-Ichi Akasofu has studied the northern lights since 1958 when he came to the University of Alaska as a graduate student. Early in his career Akasofu questioned many scientific beliefs about the aurora and went on to disprove these beliefs while making several major discoveries concerning geomagnetic storms, the Aurora's power source, and the shape of the Auroral ring. He has written numerous articles and several books about the aurora.

Born in a small Japanese village, Akasofu became interested in nature and the earth sciences because of a nearby volcano. Although he wanted to quit school during World War II to help support his family, his mother made him complete his education. Akasofu was more enamored with mountain climbing than academics as a teenager, and he took a job in an observatory in order to earn money to pursue his hobby. The job, however, was to record changes caused by the aurora in the earth's magnetic field. Although he had been pursuing a degree in meteorology to become a weather forecaster, the work experience led him to turn to astrophysics. In 1958, after receiving his master's degree, Akasofu wrote to famed geophysicist Sydney Chapman with numerous questions he had about a paper by Chapman. Chapman, in turn, invited Akasofu to come and study for his doctorate at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska.

Over the next ten years, Akasofu made several major discoveries concerning the aurora. For example, he developed a theory—later confirmed with satellite pictures in 1982—that the aurora moves from north to south because its activity was oval shaped, thus going against the prevailing theory that the aurora appeared to move north to south because Fairbanks was situated on the southern side of the auroral zone. Akasofu also countered the theory that the aurora was stable and only appeared to change in the night because of the rotation of the earth when he developed the concept that auroral substorms, or activities within an auroral storm, actually did cause the aurora to change. "That's one of the three or four major discoveries in the field," Neil Davis, a former colleague, told Charles P. Wohlforth in a Anchorage Daily News story, which also appears on Wohlforth's home Web site.

Akasofu coauthored the 1965 book Auroral Morphology as Shown by All-Sky Photographs, with D. S. Kimball, and Polar and Magnetospheric Substorms, which was published in 1968. Akasofu also collaborated with his mentor Chapman on Solar-Terrestrial Physics: An Account of the Wave and Particle Radiations from the Quiet and the Active Sun, and of the Consequent Terrestrial Phenomena. However, Chapman died before the book was published. George L. Siscoe in his review in Science called the book "effectively a handbook on all topics associated with the relations between the sun and the earth." He also noted that the book is "a valuable, authoritative, and permanent reference on the subject of solar-terrestrial relations."

Although Akasofu's early books were highly technical in nature and meant for experts in his field, his 1979 book Aurora Borealis: The Amazing Northern Lights, provides a more easily understandable overview of the aurora, from early legends and beliefs to research into the aurora's many mysteries, including what causes the aurora and how it works. Critics praised the book for its readability, pages of color photographs, and easily understandable diagrams. In American Notes and Queries, a reviewer noted that in a comparison with other books, articles, and encyclopedias, none were found to be "as satisfactorily informative or interesting" as Akasofu's book.

Akasofu's Exploring the Secrets of the Aurora, published in 2002, is primarily an historical account of the field for graduate students and scientists. Vividly illustrated with color photographs, the book includes discussions of indigenous cultural legends concerning the northern lights as well as modern science's understanding of the aurora. "This book, which is based on my own experiences as a scientist," said the author on the Kluwer Academic Publishers Web site, "describes the history of the progress made in auroral science and magnetospheric physics by providing examples of ideas, controversies, struggles, acceptance, and success in some instances."

Akasofu, who spent most of his career at the University of Alaska and became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1986, became director of the university's International Arctic Research Center when it opened in 1999. Akasofu first had the idea for the institute in 1989 as a center where international students could come and work with students and scientists from around the world. Over the next decade he worked tirelessly to raise $30 million for the center, enlisting the aid of such notables as then Vice President Al Gore. A married father of two, Akasofu is known as a tireless worker. "Most of us run on food," said scientists Glen Shaw in the Wohlforth profile of Akasofu. "Shun works on nuclear fuel." According to Wohlforth, "Akasofu attributes his own success to being too naïve 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."

As for the field of geophysics and study of the aurora, Akasofu wants new researchers to come forward and disprove or expand upon many of his own theories. "My job now is to try to help young Turks," Akasofu told Wohlforth. The profile also noted that Akasofu once wrote, "Do not forget that nature is infinitely complicated. Never have an illusion that one will ever have a complete understanding of it."



American Notes and Queries, review of Aurora Borealis: The Amazing Northern Lights, pp. 59-60.

Bloomsbury Review, July/August, 2002, Lori D. Kranz, review of Secrets of the Aurora Borealis, p. 15.

Choice, September, 1973, review of Solar-TerrestrialPhysics p. 1010.

Science, June 1, 1973, George L. Siscoe, review of Solar-Terrestrial Physics, PP. 944-45.

Scientific American, August, 1980, Philip Morrison, review of Aurora Borealis: The Amazing Northern Lights, p. 45.

Sea Frontiers, July-August, 1980, review of AuroraBorealis: The Amazing Northern Lights, p. 248.


Charles P. Wohlforth Web site, (October 14, 2002), "Syun-Ichi Akasofu Profile."

Kluwer Academic Publishers, (December 18, 2002), "Exploring the Secrets of the Aurora."*

Akasofu, Syun-Ichi 1930-

Updated About content Print Article Share Article