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News Maxwell Prize honoree

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UD's Matthaeus recognized for pioneering work in astrophysical plasma
William Matthaeus at computer

​William Matthaeus conducts research into the sun's complex atmosphere, especially the solar wind and its associated turbulence.

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 reconnection.”

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 challenge there.

“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 mission objectives.

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 Sharp Lab.

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 Pomerantz.

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 and elsewhere.

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, Florida.

Article by Beth Miller; photo by Evan Krape

Published July 26, 2019

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William Matthaeus has been awarded the 2019 Maxwell Prize from the American Physical Society, recognizing his pioneering research into the sun's complex atmosphere.

​William Matthaeus has been awarded the 2019 Maxwell Prize from the American Physical Society, recognizing his pioneering research into the sun's complex atmosphere.

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