Michael Shay, professor in the University of Delaware's Department of Physics and Astronomy, has been elected a fellow of the American Physical Society (APS), an honor that places him among the top one-half of 1 percent of society members.
Shay, who joined the UD faculty in 2005, conducts research in plasma
physics. His APS fellowship citation says that he was selected for the
honor for his “pioneering contributions to understanding magnetic
reconnection, including the nature of collisionless reconnection, and of
Plasma is a fourth state of matter, beyond solid, liquid or gas, and
is found in the composition of stars, lightning and solar wind. Huge
explosive events can occur in plasma when energy stored in magnetic
fields is suddenly released through magnetic reconnection, which is
Shay’s primary research focus.
His work is applicable to a diverse number of occurrences, including
solar flares, the Earth’s magnetosphere, space weather and star
This is a particularly exciting time for his research and for the
field of magnetic reconnection, Shay said. In March, NASA launched its
$850 million Magnetospheric Multiscale mission in which four satellites
will spend two to three years investigating magnetic reconnection and
how the sun’s and the Earth’s magnetic fields connect and disconnect.
The satellites will give scientists their first look at the inner
workings of magnetic reconnection itself, rather than studying it
through lab experiments or computer simulations.
“In September and October, we started getting data, and it’s just
incredible,” Shay said. “The measurements are 100 times faster than what
we had before, and it’s changed everything. It’s really exciting to be
part of this.”
Shay collaborates with Tai Phan, of the University of California
Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. Phan focuses on the observational
data gathered by the NASA mission, and Shay runs computer simulations,
which Phan uses “to try to get the big picture,” Shay said.
The mission is unusual for NASA because it focuses on studying not an
object, like a planet, but a process — magnetic reconnection.
“There are so many questions we hope to answer with this data,
because it’s unprecedented,” said Shay, who expects to work with the
data for many years. “It’s like our hands have been tied behind our
backs, and now they’re freed.”
A video of Shay and William Matthaeus, also a professor of physics at
UD, discussing magnetic reconnection just before the NASA mission
launched is available on the University of Delaware's YouTube channel.
Shay has received numerous awards recognizing his research, including
a 2007 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development
Award. At UD, he received the 2008 Young Scholars Award (now named the
Gerard J. Mangone Award) from the Francis Alison Society and the 2011
Excellence in Scholarship Award from the College of Arts and Sciences.
In 2013, he and Matthaeus were awarded a three-year, $1.2 million
grant from NASA’s Heliophysics Grand Challenges Program to explore how
energy from the sun is transported across the heliosphere — an
environment that surrounds the sun and planets in a giant teardrop shape
that extends to the edge of the solar system.