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Dr. Syun-Ichi Akasofu
Dr. Syun-Ichi Akasofu

A Famous Alaskan Scientist

At its annual banquet in Fairbanks on April 13, 1979, the Alaska Club of the National Scientific Society Sigma Xi will honor Dr. Syun-Ichi Akasofu. Internationally, Akasofu is among the most famous Alaskan scientists, if he is not the most well known.

Not long after he received his doctorate from the University of Alaska in 1961, he discovered and described an important aspect of auroral behavior--the fact that it follows a particularly violent behavioral pattern called the auroral substorm. When we observe brilliant auroras flashing across the sky, we can be sure that the aurora is in the throes of the substorm described by Dr. Akasofu. The substorm behavior is the reason why the aurora often appears quiescent for many minutes or even several hours and then suddenly bursts into an hour or so of frantic activity.

Substorms are important because they influence auroral behavior and its side effects such as interference with radio communication. Even more important though is the fact that the substorm behavior affects all of the near-earth environment. Also it may be similar or identical to violent changes on the sun and on other stars. Consequently Akasofu's discovery and description of the substorm is a forward step in the long search to understand the Universe.

Syun-Ichi Akasofu has devoted most of his life to the study of the aurora and the relationships that exist between the earth and the sun. One of the keys to his success is that he has always worked very hard. Like all faculty at the University of Alaska, he is expected to come up with his own research funds. State funds normally pay for classroom teaching and a small fraction of research. To pay for his research, Dr. Akasofu has written more than 50 research proposals to federal agencies during the last 8 years. Most were successful enough to bring in the money to pay the bulk of his salary, to pay the salaries of coworkers and to support the students who learned from him. The results of the research are described in Dr. Akasofu's 271 research papers and 5 books, more than has been published ever by any other Alaskan scientist.

Moreover, Akasofu is an excellent writer of English, his second language. It was not always so.

When he first arrived in Alaska as a graduate student he fell in with the ways of other students who entertained themselves by playing pranks on each other. The best pranks were those that could not be attributed to any particular prankster. Attempting to uphold this tradition, Akasofu crept into the laboratory one night to furtively place a picture of a scantily-clad lady in a film viewing machine often used by other students. When the first student looked into the machine he saw the picture together with its hand-lettered cartoon caption reading "You peeking me?" There wasn't much question about who was the prankster since Syun was the only Japanese student in the group.

Among Syun Akasofu's hobbies and special interests are gardening, and learning Eskimo and Indian legends about the aurora. He also has a mini-hobby of reading Alaskan history to try to learn the extent of Japanese participation in Alaska's exploration. With Syun's persistence, he might end up proving to the rest of us that all the important exploratory feats were by early Japanese.