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5 Things About Me: Physicist (Retired) Dan Swift

In retirement, physicist Dan Swift is tutoring fifth and sixth grade mathematics, coaching in a school robotics club and helping out in ELP classes in the Fairbanks schools. (Photo: Dan Swift)

Dan Swift
Professor Emeritus
Geophysical Institute and Department of Physics, University of Alaska
Fairbanks, Alaska

Background: My field is physics. My sub-discipline is plasma physics and space physics. My focus has been on understanding the aurora. My main methodology has been in numerical simulation of plasma processes. My career began when as the first satellites were launched and plasma physics was a new field. Within the University of Alaska's physics department, I have developed graduate-level courses in plasma physics and numerical simulation.

In retirement, I am tutoring fifth and sixth grade mathematics, coach in a school robotics club and helped out in ELP classes in the local schools. My pathway into the schools was through my grandchildren and a daughter who teaches in the school system.

Question 1: Why did you become a physicist?
Answer: Ever since junior high, I have been fascinated by the big questions. For example, what is matter made of, or where did our planet and the stars come from?. In high school I was intrigued by how one could arrive at understanding of the physical world through mathematics. This set me on a theoretical path. I was introduced to computers through summer jobs.  

Question 2: Share a story from your past that led to your choosing your field of work.
Answer: I took a summer job at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory while a graduate student at MIT. I was given a task of computing Faraday rotation of radio signals that pass through the ionosphere, bounce off the moon and return to through the ionosphere. I had a rather complicated mathematical expression and wanted to generate some numbers. I went to the section chief and said I need help from a computer programmer. The chief said, "Graduate students don't get programmers.", and he tossed a manual on my desk. So, I learned to write computer programs. That was in 1958. The signal for these moon reflection experiments was transmitted from Massachusetts and received in Fairbanks, Alaska. Through that connection I heard some interesting tales about life in Alaska. Also, through my work at the Lincoln, I became familiar with other work that was being done there at the Geophysical Institute. A couple of years later, I wanted to move to a different part of the country. So, on a chance I wrote a letter of inquiry to the Director of the Geophysical Institute. A new director was taking over, and he wanted to develop theoretical capability at the Institute. I got back an enthusiastic reply, so off to Alaska my wife, infant daughter and I went. 

Question 3: What are you most proud of in your work?
Answer: A former student and I collaborated on a unique global scale numerical simulation of the Earth's magnetosphere using a particle code that included full ion kinetics. The code showed the turbulent generation of intense Alfven waves near the equatorial plane on the night side of the Earth about ten Earth radii out. The waves propagate along the magnetic field to the auroral ionosphere. Not long after the publication of the paper describing the work we became aware of observation of these waves. The observations linked these waves with the aurora. I subsequently did other numerical simulations that showed how these Alfven waves accelerate electrons in a way that demands the fine-scale structure so characteristic of auroral forms. 

Question 4: Tell us about a hobby or passion outside work.
Answer: A little over twenty years ago, I acquired some power tools. I started out making furniture pieces for our house, including a dining table and set of chairs, china cabinet, our bed, as well as other occasional tables and shelves. I have three daughters setting up households, so I wound up making beds and dining sets for them and later for friends outside the family. Lately, I have advertised at the Geophysical Institute that I make custom furniture at cost. The need I fill is for furniture of specific dimensions that cannot be purchased. 

Question 5: Read a book that you are dying to tell your peers about. Give a brief summary and why you love it.
Answer: Rare Earth by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee. This book describes the incredible coincidences and conditions necessary for the evolution of intelligent life. Life requires a specific place in the galaxy, a specific size and luminosity of the sun, a specific distance from the sun, global tectonics and even the existence of a large moon to keep the axis of the Earth's rotation stable. The number and exactness of conditions is so stringent, I doubt that we will ever detect the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy.

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In retirement, physicist Dan Swift is tutoring fifth and sixth grade mathematics, coaching in a school robotics club and helping out in ELP classes in the Fairbanks schools. (Photo: Dan Swift)
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