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Magnetic Reconnection – Reinventing the Wheel


One outstanding characteristic of our modern technological world is the use of ‘standard modules’. For example, suppose you are asked to set up the appointment schedule and billing procedure for a law firm or a doctor’s office. What you need, of course, is a ‘database’ program. There are many good ones available for purchase on the software market.  After you buy one and learn how to use it, you can spend your time productively adding and updating clients names and information to this database.  It would be wasteful of time and effort to try to construct this entire computer program from scratch using, say, Visual Basic, or some other low-level programming language. Just buy it and add information to it – the hard work of creating the structure of almost any generic data base has already been done.

Similarly if you want to design and build some type of machine tool such as a drill press or table saw, it would be foolish to first build from scratch the electric motor that the device will use.  There are many excellent quality electric motors of all sizes and speeds available to you from manufacturers that do nothing but build electric motors. In other words – Don’t ‘reinvent the wheel’.

Doing something unnecessarily from scratch when a major component or module of your design is already available to you ‘off the shelf’ is foolishly counterproductive.  The only reason someone might do such a thing is if he were unaware of the work others have already done to produce exactly what he needs.

In other words the problem is caused by ignorance. The word ‘ignorance’ as used here is not inherently derogatory; it simply implies the absence of certain knowledge.  However, the reason for this lack of knowledge is usually different in each case.  And this reason may indeed deserve our critical evaluation.

It is widely believed that the wheel was invented in Mesopotamia about 7000 years ago. There may have been an independent discovery of the wheel in China around 6800 years ago. (Despite its overwhelming utility, many major cultures failed to discover it – the wheel did not appear in sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, or the Americas until comparatively recent times.)  The reason (for the reinvention) in this case was that there was no known communication between the Chinese and Mesopotamian civilizations at that time. The Chinese had no way of knowing about the original invention.

In the case of the observed release of energy from a magnetic field, astrophysicists have no excuse for their ‘reinvention’ of the scientific physical explanation of this process. They cannot credibly claim that nobody has studied this phenomenon.  Starting in 1820 with Hans Christian Øersted’s discovery that magnetic fields were caused by electric currents, and progressing through the next century and a half of experimentally verified electrical science, the pioneers of what is now called electrical plasma, have already discovered, quantified, and explained this process in detail.

Hannes Alfvén was an electrical engineer who struggled to understand and eliminate the destructive explosions that occurred on high voltage transmission lines in his native Sweden.  He determined that the energy being released so calamitously was originally stored in the magnetic fields that surround the electrical currents being transmitted along the lines. Any abrupt interruption of those currents leads to an explosive energy release. He said:

"In the case of the instability leading to the extinction of the current, it should be remembered that every electric circuit is explosive in the sense that if we try to disrupt the current, a release of the whole inductive energy at the point of disruption will occur." - H. Alfvén, Cosmic Plasma, Reidel, Holland, Boston, 1981, p.27.

Alfvén extrapolated his findings about terrestrial power lines to the study of magnetized cosmic plasma. In the case of the disruption of an electric current within such a plasma, he said, “If the current disruption is caused by an instability in the plasma, the inductive energy in the circuit will be released in the plasma. … The disruption of a current through a plasma is often caused by a double layer becoming unstable.”

Astrophysicists ignore Alfvén’s work.  They attempt to arrive at a de novo explanation for the release of such energy by embracing the notion that the motion and interaction of magnetic field lines is its root cause.  They expound on the (basically false) idea that magnetic fields are ‘frozen into’ plasma, and by moving and breaking, these lines carry the plasma along and spew it out into space.

Alfvén ridiculed this explanation by saying, “A magnetic field line is by definition a line which is everywhere parallel to the magnetic field. If the current system changes, the shape of the magnetic field line changes but it is meaningless to speak about a translational movement of magnetic field lines.”  - Alfvén, op cit, p.12.(Emphasis in original) Despite his warnings about this, astrophysicists persist in the notion that moving and interacting magnetic field lines – independent of any electrical current causality – produce the release of energy and plasma during solar flares.  They have named this process ‘ reconnection’.

The standard explanation of reconnection is that magnetic field lines move and eventually come together (‘short-circuit’) at some point. There they change their structure (reconnect) and move apart. But magnetic field lines as such cannot move or touch each other.  A compounding error is made in assuming that plasma is ‘attached’ to those lines and will be bulk transported by this movement of the lines. So in coming up with this novel hypothesis they have reinvented the wheel. But not only is this hypothesis an unnecessary ‘reinvention’, it is based on erroneous concepts and has no clarifying value.  

Hannes Alfvén was explicit in his condemnation of the reconnecting concept: 

"Of course there can be no magnetic merging energy transfer.  Despite.. this, we have witnessed at the same time an enormously voluminous formalism building up based on this obviously erroneous concept.

I was naïve enough to believe that [magnetic reconnection] would die by itself in the scientific community, and I concentrated my work on more pleasant problems.  To my great surprise the opposite has occurred: ‘merging’ … seems to be increasingly powerful.  Magnetospheric physics and solar wind physics today are no doubt in a chaotic state, and a major reason for this is that part of the published papers are science and part pseudoscience, perhaps even with a majority in the latter group."   

They have reinvented the wheel and done a bad job of it. If you are going to come up with an alternative explanation for something – at least get one that is defensible scientifically.  

If we look closely at the reason for this reinvention, it becomes clear that, having adamantly refused to acknowledge the effects (let alone the existence) of electric currents in space, astrophysicists had to come up with an explanation that avoided mentioning them.  Moreover, in giving this explanation a catchy name – “reconnection” – that appears repetitively, they can avoid restating the details of their invented explanation each time they use it and thus avoid having to defend it. We hear “Oh, that is an example of reconnection.”  “Yes, another effect of the reconnection process.” Etc., ad nauseum.  

In the law, a well known principle is that ‘Ignorance of the law is no defense.’  Similarly in science, intentional ignorance of the work of an entire academy of scholars and researchers that has applicability to the area in which you are involved, is evidence of either incompetence or a lack of ethical behavior.  There can be no excuse for astrophysicists ignoring the work of investigators such as Nobel laureates Hannes Alfvén and Irving Langmuir.  

In addition to his fundamental discoveries, Alfvén made numerous important contributions to the physics of the magnetosphere, especially auroras and magnetic storms, as well as to solar and interplanetary physics, astrophysics and cosmology. His best known discovery are called Alfvén waves. Hannes Alfvén realized that the magnetic fields observed in sunspots must derive from electric currents in the solar plasma, and that the currents and the magnetic fields together generate forces that affect the motion of this plasma, which in turn can induce electric fields. He formulated this mutual interaction and the resulting waves in mathematical form by 1942.  There is no legitimate excuse for astrophysicists to be unaware of his work.  

A more detailed dissection of the ‘reconnection process’ makes up the last third of a ‘rejoinder’ I wrote that appears here.  This includes an example of how magnetic field lines can be misapplied.  Also you might be interested in my presentation of these and other ideas in The Electric Sky – see chapter 12 Open Magnetic Fields and Other Fictions.  Lastly, for a more quantified description see my published IEEE paper Real Properties of Magnetic Fields and Plasma in the Cosmos.  

Don Scott  


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Donald E. Scott
Dr. Donald E. Scott is a retired Professor of Electrical Engineering and long-time amateur astronomer.

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