University of Rochester

Professor Wins Grant to Look into the Storms of Stars

July 25, 2000

Eric Blackman, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, has received the Plasma Physics Junior Faculty Development Award from the U. S. Department of Energy. The $450,000 prize goes to exceptionally talented scientists who are just starting their careers in the study of plasma-ionized gas of which stars and galaxies are made. Blackman won the award for his theoretical techniques designed to learn what creates giant magnetic fields, the kind that cause massive solar flares that knock out power grids and satellites. Understanding what forces give birth to these eruptions may someday allow scientists to better predict them, or strengthen electronics against them.

"Eric's work on plasmas in space has us all excited," says George Field, professor of astronomy at Harvard University. "Everywhere we turn there are phenomena it seems to explain: gamma ray bursts, radio galaxies, solar flares. We can understand why he got this prestigious award."

What scientists can learn from laboratory plasmas may help explain some of nature's most mysterious and energetic sources that shine at us from distant galaxies a billion light years away. Astrophysical plasmas conduct electricity well, so they can support huge magnetic fields. Often, the fields will leech energy away from the body that formed it, and throw it out into space, creating solar flares and other phenomena.

"This process is likely going on in the most energetic sources in the universe," says Blackman. "But how the energy goes from the star or galactic engine to the flare is not well understood. I'll be exploring new ideas about how magnetic fields play into the process."

Blackman will use the award to add two or three new people to his research group and attract more young talent to Rochester in the form of postdoctoral researchers and graduate students. The team will work in both the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and will also study ways to utilize the University of Rochester's Laboratory for Laser Energetics Omega laser as a tool.

"Omega is currently the world's most powerful laser and can create the extreme conditions we need to explore astrophysical plasmas," says Blackman. "The whole field of plasma astrophysics is receiving a lot of attention lately, and all these endeavors will help make Rochester a leader in the field."