Magnetic fields implicated in the mysterious midlife crisis of stars

a brightly colored sun with a cutout showing into the core, with lines suggesting the spinning motion
a brightly colored sun with a cutout showing into the core, with lines suggesting the spinning motion
Artist’s impression of the spinning interior of a star, generating the stellar magnetic field. This image combines a dynamo simulation of the Sun’s interior with observations of the Sun’s outer atmosphere, where storms and plasma winds are generated. | Credit:

This post was originally published by the Royal Astronomical Society. UW–Madison physics graduate student Bindesh Tripathi is the lead author of the scientific publication.

Middle-aged stars can experience their own kind of midlife crisis, experiencing dramatic breaks in their activity and rotation rates at about the same age as our Sun, according to new research published today in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters. The study provides a new theoretical underpinning for the unexplained breakdown of established techniques for measuring ages of stars past their middle age, and the transition of solar-like stars to a magnetically inactive future.

Astronomers have long known that stars experience a process known as ‘magnetic braking’: a steady stream of charged particles, known as the solar wind, escapes from the star over time, carrying away small amounts of the star’s angular momentum. This slow drain causes stars like our Sun to gradually slow down their rotation over billions of years.

In turn, the slower rotation leads to altered magnetic fields and less stellar activity – the numbers of sunspots, flares, outbursts, and similar phenomena in the atmospheres of stars, which are intrinsically linked to the strengths of their magnetic fields.

profile photo of Bindesh Tripathy
Bindesh Tripathi

This decrease in activity and rotation rate over time is expected to be smooth and predictable because of the gradual loss of angular momentum. The idea gave birth to the tool known as ‘stellar gyrochronology’, which has been widely used over the past two decades to estimate the age of a star from its rotation period.

However recent observations indicate that this intimate relationship breaks down around middle age. The new work, carried out by Bindesh Tripathi at UW–Madison and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata, India, provides a novel explanation for this mysterious ailment. Prof. Dibyendu Nandy, and Prof. Soumitro Banerjee of IISER are co-authors.

Using dynamo models of magnetic field generation in stars, the team show that at about the age of the Sun the magnetic field generation mechanism of stars suddenly becomes sub-critical or less efficient. This allows stars to exist in two distinct activity states – a low activity mode and an active mode. A middle aged star like the Sun can often switch to the low activity mode resulting in drastically reduced angular momentum losses by magnetized stellar winds.

Prof. Nandy comments: “This hypothesis of sub-critical magnetic dynamos of solar-like stars provides a self-consistent, unifying physical basis for a diversity of solar-stellar phenomena, such as why stars beyond their midlife do not spin down as fast as in their youth, the breakdown of stellar gyrochronology relations, and recent findings suggesting that the Sun may be transitioning to a magnetically inactive future.”

The new work provides key insights into the existence of low activity episodes in the recent history of the Sun known as grand minima – when hardly any sunspots are seen. The best known of these is perhaps the Maunder Minimum around 1645 to 1715, when very few sunspots were observed.

The team hope that it will also shed light on recent observations indicating that the Sun is comparatively inactive, with crucial implications for the potential long-term future of our own stellar neighbor.

2021 Homi Bhabha Award given to Francis Halzen

profile photo of Francis Halzen

This story was originally published by the IceCube collaboration.

profile photo of Francis Halzen
Francis Halzen | Image: Zig Hampel-Arias, WIPAC.

The International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, India, have awarded the 2021 Homi Bhabha Medal and Prize to Francis Halzen, the Hilldale and Gregory Breit Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and principal investigator of IceCube, for his “distinguished contributions in the field of high-energy cosmic-ray physics and astroparticle physics over an extended academic career.” Halzen accepted the award at the opening session of the virtual 37th International Cosmic Ray Conference, on July 12, 2021.

The Bhabha Award was established by IUPAP and TIFR in 2010 to honor Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha, a cosmic ray physicist well known for the Bhabha-Heitler cascade theory and relativistic positron-electron scattering, also known as Bhabha scattering. Bhabha founded TIFR in 1945 and initiated the nuclear energy program in India in 1951. He initiated experimental programs for the study of cosmic ray particles and their interactions with instruments either carried aloft to the top of the atmosphere with balloons or placed in laboratories at high altitude or deep underground. The Homi Bhabha Medal and Prize consists of a certificate, a medal, a monetary award, and an invitation to visit the TIFR, Mumbai, and the Cosmic Ray Laboratory, Ooty to give public lectures. It is awarded biennially at the International Cosmic Ray Conference.

Born in Belgium, Halzen received his Master’s and PhD degrees from the University of Louvain, Belgium, and has been on the physics faculty at UW–Madison since 1972. The Bhabha Award is just the latest in Halzen’s long and storied career; previous accolades include a 2014 American Ingenuity Award, the 2015 Balzan Prize, a 2018 Bruno Pontecorvo Prize, the 2019 IUPAP Yodh Prize, and the 2021 Bruno Rossi Prize. Halzen is the third IceCube collaborator to win a Bhabha Award after Tom Gaisser in 2015 and Subir Sarkar in 2017.

During his virtual acceptance remarks, Halzen credited his collaborators, saying, “If I made contributions, it is because I ran into incredible collaborators who were leaders in the field, and still are. My ultimate collaborators, of course, I found within the AMANDA collaboration—and now IceCube—who made high-energy neutrinos part of the high-energy cosmic ray spectrum…

“Thanks to everybody, and thanks to IceCube; this prize is shared with all of you.”

Francis Halzen named Vilas Research Professor

Francis Halzen

UW–Madison physics professor Francis Halzen has been named a Vilas Research Professor. Created “for the advancement of learning,” Vilas Research Professorships are granted to faculty with proven research ability and unusual qualifications and promise. The recipients of the award have contributed significantly to the research mission of the university and are recognized both nationally and internationally.

Halzen, the Gregory Breit and Hilldale Professor of Physics, joined the UW­­–Madison faculty in 1972. He has made pioneering contributions to particle physics and neutrino astrophysics, and he continues to be the driving force of the international IceCube Collaboration.

Early in his career, Halzen cofounded the internationally recognized phenomenology research institute in the UW–Madison Department of Physics to promote research at the interface of theory and experiment in particle physics. This institute is recognized for this research and for its leadership in the training of postdocs and graduate students in particle physics phenomenology.

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is the culmination of an idea first conceived in the 1960s, and one in which Halzen has played an integral role in its design, implementation, and data acquisition and analysis for the past three decades. After initial experiments confirmed that the Antarctic ice was ultratransparent and established the observation of atmospheric neutrinos, IceCube was ready to become a reality. From 2004 to 2011, the South Pole observatory was constructed — the largest project ever assigned to a university and one led by Halzen.

After two years of taking data with the full detector, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory opened a new window onto the universe with its discovery of highly energetic neutrinos of extragalactic origin. This discovery heralded the beginning of the exploration of the universe with neutrino telescopes. The IceCube observation of cosmic neutrinos was named the 2013 Physics World Breakthrough of the Year.

Nationally and internationally renowned for this work, Halzen was awarded a 2014 American Ingenuity Award, a 2015 Balzan Prize, a 2018 Bruno Pontecorvo Prize, a 2019 Yodh Prize, and a 2021 Bruno Rossi Prize.

With the Vilas Research Professorship, Halzen is also recognized for his commitment to education and service in the department, university, and international science communities. He has taught everything from physics for nonscience majors to advanced particle physics and special topics courses at UW–Madison. He has actively participated on several departmental and university committees as well as advisory, review, and funding panels. His input is highly sought by committees and agencies that assess future priorities of particle and astroparticle physics research.

“Francis Halzen has had a prolific, internationally recognized research career, has shown excellence as an educator who is able to effectively communicate cutting-edge science on all levels, and has made tireless and valued contributions in service of the department,” says Sridhara Dasu, Physics Department chair. “He is one of the most creative and influential physicists of the last half century and worthy of the prestigious Vilas Research Professorship.”

Vilas awards are supported by the estate of professor, U.S. senator and UW Regent William F. Vilas (1840-1908). The Vilas Research Professorship provides five years of flexible funding — two-thirds of which is provided by the Office of the Provost through the generosity of the Vilas trustees and one-third provided by the school or college whose dean nominated the winner.

Halzen joins department colleagues Profs. Vernon Barger and Sau Lan Wu as recipients of this prestigious UW–Madison professorship.

Ke Fang receives prestigious Shakti Duggal Award

profile photo of Ke Fang

This article was originally published by WIPAC

Ke Fang, professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has been selected as the recipient of the 2021 Shakti P. Duggal Award presented by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP).

profile photo of Ke Fang
Ke Fang

The Duggal Award was established after cosmic-ray physicist Shakti Duggal’s untimely death in 1982. In honor of Shakti’s long association with cosmic ray physics and his many contributions to the field during his career, his namesake award is given biennially “to recognize an outstanding young scientist for contributions in any branch of cosmic ray physics.” The first Shakti P. Duggal Award was presented at the 19th International Cosmic Ray Conference at La Jolla in 1985. Previous Duggal Award winners have all achieved recognition and prominence in their careers.

Award winners receive a monetary award and, since 1991, an invitation to visit the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware, where Shakti Duggal worked, to present a colloquium and discuss their work.

Fang’s research focuses on understanding the universe through its energetic messengers, including ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, gamma rays, and high-energy neutrinos. She runs numerical simulations to study theories of astroparticle sources and analyzes data from HAWC, Fermi-LAT, and IceCube. She joined WIPAC and the UW–Madison Physics Department as an assistant professor on January 1, 2021. You can learn more about Fang and her research in this Q&A.

“I am very grateful for this special honor,” said Fang. “As a young researcher, I have received enormous support from my mentors and collaborators, to whom the award truly belongs. I look forward to continuing working on and contributing to cosmic ray physics as a member of the Duggal family.”