The American Physical Society, one of the largest organizations of physicists in the world, has awarded its 2019 James Clerk Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics to William Matthaeus, Unidel Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware.
The prize, which includes a $10,000 award, recognizes Matthaeus “for
pioneering research into the nature of turbulence in space and
astrophysical plasmas, which has led to major advances in understanding
particle transport, dissipation of turbulent energy and magnetic
In other words, Matthaeus’ study of the sun’s complex atmosphere —
especially the solar wind and its associated magnetic fields and
turbulence that define so much of its influence — has greatly enhanced
our understanding of the universe.
The selection committee included: James Drake, chair (University of
Maryland), Raul Sanchez, vice chair (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid,
Spain), 2018 recipient Keith Burrell (General Atomics), Gilbert Collins
(Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) and Yu Lin (Auburn University).
“I have so much respect for him as a scientist,” said Prof. Michael
Shay, Matthaeus’ colleague in UD’s Department of Physics and Astronomy,
who nominated him for the award. “He has made such great strides in so
many parts of our research field …. He’s really a force unto himself.”
Matthaeus has helped us understand how to think about turbulence in the sun’s atmosphere, for example, Shay said.
“We know the solar wind — the plasma shooting out from the sun — is a
turbulent flow,” he said. “But it’s very different in many ways from
the turbulence people have studied in the atmosphere and in water flows.
The magnetic fields are very important here. Suffice it to say, Bill
has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of plasma
turbulence and how magnetic fields affect this turbulence.”
A major question that remains is how that turbulent energy dissipates in the solar wind, Shay said.
“That’s the big question Bill has made a lot of progress on — seminal
progress — and it has applications all over the place, all over the
solar system and all over astronomy,” he said.
Matthaeus has been on the faculty at UD since 1983 and has served as director of the Delaware NASA Space Grant since 2016.
With more than 450 publications and thousands of citations, Matthaeus
has made his mark in the field. He also has changed the lives of
students, many of whom are making their own marks in the field,
including Shiyi Chen, now president of the South University of Space and
Technology of China, and Gary Zank, professor and chair of the
Department of Space Sciences at the University of Alabama, Huntsville,
and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Matthaeus has been on this trajectory since he was a kid.
“I always knew I wanted to be some kind of scientist,” Matthaeus said.
But how to decide which kind of science to pursue? At St. Joseph’s
Prep School in Philadelphia, he won the gold medal in biology and the
gold medal in chemistry, but only a silver medal in physics. He saw a
“Why did I only get a silver medal in physics?” he asked himself. “I’m going to major in that.”
He didn’t know he would turn out to be a theoretical physicist — the
kind of guy who thinks out what might be happening in places and
conditions no human has ever been. But his ideas and numerical methods
have helped to lay the foundation of many experimental advances and
He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and philosophy from the
University of Pennsylvania (1973), master’s degrees from both Old
Dominion University (1975) and William and Mary (1977) and a doctorate
from William and Mary (1979), where his thesis adviser was the
pioneering plasma physicist David Montgomery.
To celebrate the completion of his doctorate, Matthaeus splurged and
bought a copy of “Cosmical Magnetic Fields: Their Origin and Their
Activity,” by Eugene Parker, for whom NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission
is named and who, by the way, was the 2003 recipient of the APS’ Maxwell
Prize in Plasma Physics. The book is still in Matthaeus’ office in
Matthaeus did postdoctoral work at Goddard Space Flight Center, where
Melvyn Goldstein was his adviser. Matthaeus said Goldstein, who later
became chief of Goddard’s Geospace Physics Laboratory, was the one who
got him into the details of space observations.
He recalled the “incredible amount of expertise in space physics” that resided in Building 2 there.
“If you want to learn about space, Goddard Space Flight Center is
awesome,” Matthaeus said. “If you wanted to know something that was not
in the books, you just walked down the hall.”
Over time, he started doing theoretical work intended to be applicable to the solar wind and solar corona.
He was recruited to the Bartol Research Institute by its director at
UD, the late Prof. Martin A. Pomerantz. Pomerantz’s pioneering work in
Antarctic astronomy is recognized at the United States Amundsen-Scott
South Pole Station, where the astronomical observatory is named for
Matthaeus remembers asking Pomerantz during his job interview what exactly his job would be.
“You’ll come up here and do your research,” Pomerantz replied.
“OK, but what are my duties?” Matthaeus asked.
“Do your research,” Pomerantz said.
That amazed the young scientist.
“He said they would pay me and I’d be a professor and I could teach
if I wanted to,” he said. “And I could do my research. And here it is —
2019. It has worked out so far!”
Matthaeus doesn’t teach in the classroom too often, but he gives what
he calls “ad hoc lectures” almost every week to small groups of
students, mentors students in small groups or individually and
supervises graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.
His research focuses on turbulence theory, plasma physics, fluid
mechanics and statistical mechanics and how all of that applies to the
solar wind and coronal phenomena.
“It used to be that plasma physics was all concentrated on laboratory
and industrial stuff,” he said. “Even though almost everything outside
the Earth’s atmosphere is plasma, astrophysicists didn’t include
magnetic fields in their considerations until the last 20 years. They
just considered the hydrodynamics of the interstellar medium, but not
the magnetohydrodynamics. Magnetohydrodynamics is the first step to
studying plasmas, which is the mechanics and electromagnetics of
electrically conducting gases.”
Now, the effects of magnetic fields and turbulence are seen as
critical to understanding space weather and its broad effects on Earth
Matthaeus was among the pioneers who started applying concepts of plasma physics to astrophysics.
He is a past recipient of the James B. Macelwane Award from the
American Geophysical Union and is a Fellow of the American Physical
Society, the Institute of Physics and the American Geophysical Union.
He is co-investigator on several NASA missions, including Cluster/PEACE, the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, the Parker Solar Probe
ISOIS instruments, and the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe.
He has served on NASA’s Heliospheric Advisory Committee since 2016.
Matthaeus has done much international work, too. He is one of the
founders and has been a lead organizer of the Arcetri Workshop on Plasma
Astrophysics, which marks its 10th annual gathering this fall at the
University of Florence, Italy. And in 2018 he received the Ruth Gall
Award for Contributions to Latin American Science.
He will receive the Maxwell Prize in October, during the 61st annual
meeting of the APS’ Division of Plasma Physics in Fort Lauderdale,
Article by Beth Miller; photo by Evan Krape
Published July 26, 2019