Zweibel receives Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s most prestigious award

This post is adapted from an Astronomical Society of the Pacific press release

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) has awarded the 2022 Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal to Ellen Zweibel. It is the most prestigious award given by ASP.

profile photo of Ellen Zweibel
Ellen Zweibel, W. L. Kraushaar professor of astronomy and physics (Photo by Althea Dotzour / UW–Madison)

Zweibel, the William L. Kraushaar professor of astronomy and physics at UW–Madison, was recognized for her contributions to the understanding of astrophysical plasmas, especially those associated with the Sun, stars, galaxies, and galaxy clusters. She has also made major contributions in linking plasma characteristics and behaviors observed in laboratories to astrophysical plasma phenomena occurring in the universe.

Most plasma effects in astrophysical systems are due to an embedded magnetic field. Many of them can be grouped into a small number of basic physical processes: how magnetic fields are generated, how they exchange energy with their environments (sometimes on explosively fast timescales), their role in global instabilities, how they cause a tiny fraction of thermal particles to be accelerated to relativistic energies, and how they mediate the interaction of these relativistic particles (cosmic rays) with their gaseous environments through waves and instabilities on microscales. Although all these processes occur in laboratory plasmas, it is in natural plasmas that they take their most extreme forms. Zweibel and her students and postdocs have used analytical theory and numerical simulations to study the generation and evolution of magnetic fields in the Sun and other stars, in galaxies, and in galaxy clusters, and have researched the effects of high energy cosmic ray particles in all of these environments. Their most recent work centers on the role of cosmic rays in star formation feedback: the self-regulation of the star formation rate in galaxies through energy and momentum input to the ambient medium by the stars themselves.

a gold medal that says astronomical society of the pacific around the rim and has an antiquity-looking woman and other details
The Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal (photo from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific)

Zweibel has authored over 242 refereed publications with over 8,000 citations. In 2016 she was awarded the American Physical Society’s James Clerk Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics “For seminal research on the energetics, stability, and dynamics of astrophysical plasmas, including those related to stars and galaxies, and for leadership in linking plasma and other astrophysical phenomena.” She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal was established in 1898 by Catherine Wolfe Bruce, an American philanthropist and patroness of astronomy. The ASP presents the medal annually to a professional astronomer in recognition of a lifetime of outstanding achievement and contributions to astrophysics research. It was first awarded in 1898 to Simon Newcomb. Previous recipients of the Bruce Medal include Giovanni V. Schiaparelli (1902), Edwin Hubble (1938), Fred Hoyle (1970), and Vera Rubin (2003)

Brian Rebel promoted to full professor

profile photo of Brian Rebel
Brian Rebel

The Department of Physics is happy to announce that Professor Brian Rebel has been promoted to full professor.

Rebel is a high energy experimentalist whose research focuses on accelerator-based neutrino physics. He joined the department as an associate professor with a joint appointment at Fermilab in 2018, where he is now a senior scientist.

“Professor Rebel is a leader in neutrino science, making major contributions to DUNE experiments and having published recently on four different neutrino collaborations,” says Mark Eriksson, physics department chair. “The department is thrilled about his promotion to full professor.”

Rebel has established himself as a leader in the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF) and Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE). DUNE is an international experiment for neutrino science and proton decay studies that consists of two neutrino detectors — one near Fermilab in Illinois, and one in South Dakota. The experiment will be installed in LBNF, which will produce the neutrino beam. Rebel is currently the DUNE Anode Plane Assembly (APA) consortium manager, and has previously led Fermilab’s DUNE Science Group.

Since 2005, Rebel has also been involved in Fermilab’s NOvA experiment, which uses precision measurements to investigate the flavor oscillations of neutrinos that are not predicted by the Standard Model. He is currently serving as the co-convener of the analysis group searching for oscillations of active neutrino flavors into a sterile neutrino.

Rebel is currently training three graduate students and two postdoctoral scholars, and expects to graduate his first UW–Madison doctoral student soon. Additionally, he supervised several trainees at Fermilab before he came to UW–Madison. He has enjoyed teaching both introductory physics as well as physics courses for non-majors, and is an effective and engaging teacher.

Congrats, Prof. Rebel, on this well-deserved recognition!



Sau Lan Wu honored with named planet

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has named a minor planet ‘Saulanwu’ after UW–Madison physics professor Sau Lan Wu.

The planet (177770) ‘Saulanwu’ (=2005 JE163) was discovered on May 8, 2005 at Mt Lemmon observatory in southern Arizona by a NASA funded project, the Catalina Sky Survey. More details about the planet can be found from NASA’s JPL website, including a sketch of the planet’s orbit, which is in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Minor planet ‘Saulanwu’ is about two kilometers in diameter, and it takes four years to orbit the sun once. This planet is relatively stable, dynamically, and is expected to remain in our cosmos for millions of years to come.

Wu was nominated for this honor by astronomer Gregory J. Leonard from the University of Arizona’s Department of Planetary Sciences.

a certificate announcing that Sau Lan Wu has had a minor planet named after her

Victor Brar, Moritz Münchmeyer funded through latest round of Research Forward

Victor Brar

Sixteen projects — including two from Physics — have been selected for funding in the second round of Research Forward, a program to stimulate innovative and groundbreaking research at UW–Madison that is collaborative, multidisciplinary and potentially transformative.

The winning projects were chosen from 96 proposals submitted by applicants across campus. The Research Forward initiative is sponsored by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education and is supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which provides funding for one or two years, depending on the needs and scope of the project. Some of the projects that have been funded have the potential to fundamentally transform a field of study.

profile photo of Moritz Muenchmeyer
Moritz Münchmeyer

The Research Forward initiative is sponsored by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education and is supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which provides funding for one or two years, depending on the needs and scope of the project. Some of the projects that have been funded have the potential to fundamentally transform a field of study.

“Research Forward encourages collaboration among campus PIs, enhances PhD student and postdoc training, and strengthens our external grant funding requests,” says Steve Ackerman, vice chancellor for research and graduate education. “The projects we selected are truly forward-looking and use innovative approaches and tools such as state-of-the-art machine learning methods, 3D printing techniques and geostationary satellites.”

The Physics projects are:

Keith Bechtol selected to Department of Energy Early Career Research Program

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Keith Bechtol

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science announced the selection of 83 scientists — including University of Wisconsin–Madison physics professor Keith Bechtol — to the Early Career Research Program.

The funding will allow Bechtol and his group to first work on commissioning the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in preparation for the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST), then they will transition to data collection and analysis for their cosmology research.

“We are anticipating that LSST will catalog more stars, more galaxies and more solar system objects during its first year of operations than all previous telescopes combined,” Bechtol says.

Rubin Observatory’s telescope will have an eight-meter diameter mirror and a ten square degree field of view. The 3.2-billion-pixel camera will collect an image every 30 seconds. All told, LSST will amass around 10 terabytes of data every night.

Bechtol has leadership roles for building and commissioning the observatory as well as with the Dark Energy Science Collaboration (DESC), the international science collaboration that will make high accuracy measurements of fundamental cosmological parameters using LSST data. At least seven other collaborations have formed around different science areas to analyze the data. Rubin Observatory is preparing to serve the LSST data to many thousands of scientists in the US, Chile, and at international partner institutions around the world.

“DESC will use LSST data to address several outstanding physics questions, such as: Why are the distances between galaxies growing at an accelerating rate? What is the fundamental nature of dark matter? What is the absolute mass scale of neutrinos? How did the universe begin and what were the initial conditions?” Bechtol says.

Bechtol will receive around $150,000 per year for five years to cover summer salary and research expenses. The research expenses will be used mostly to cover the analyses after the data collection starts. However, because there cannot be useful data without the initial commissioning and science validation steps — and because the Observatory is still a couple of years away from first light — the DOE award is also supporting Bechtol’s efforts during the commissioning phase to accelerate the realization of DESC science goals.

“For me, the most important thing about this award is that it will provide more opportunity for students and postdocs to directly contribute to this ambitious experiment. Turning on a new experiment of this scale and complexity doesn’t happen every day,” Bechtol says. “For my research group to be able to participate firsthand in the commissioning, seeing first light, and contributing to the first cosmology results is so valuable from a career development perspective. We are training the next generation of experiment builders.”

The DOE early career program is open to untenured, tenure-track professors at a U.S. academic institution (or a full-time employee at a DOE national laboratory) who received a PhD within the past 10 years. Research topics are required to fall within one of the DOE Office of Science’s eight major program offices, including high energy physics, the program through which Bechtol’s award was made.


Thad Walker honored with Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professorship

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Thad Walker

Extraordinary members of the University of Wisconsin–Madison faculty, including physics professor Thad Walker, have been honored during the last year with awards supported by the estate of professor, U.S. senator and UW Regent William F. Vilas (1840-1908).

Walker was one of seventeen professors were named to Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professorships, an award recognizing distinguished scholarship as well as standout efforts in teaching and service. The 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.

In addition, nine professors received Vilas Faculty Mid-Career Investigator Awards and six professors received Vilas Faculty Early Career Investigator Awards.

Mark Saffman named WARF professor

This post is adapted from the original

profile photo of Mark Saffman, posing in his lab with lots of wires and equipment
Mark Saffman

Thirty-two members of the University of Wisconsin–Madison faculty — including physics professor Mark Saffman — have been awarded fellowships from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education for 2022-23. The awardees span the four divisions on campus: arts and humanities, physical sciences, social sciences and biological sciences.

“These awards provide an opportunity for campus to recognize our outstanding faculty,” says Steve Ackerman, vice chancellor for research and graduate education. “They highlight faculty efforts to support the research, teaching, outreach and public service missions of the university.”

The awards are possible due to the research efforts of UW–Madison faculty and staff. Technology that arises from these efforts is licensed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and the income from successful licenses is returned to the OVCRGE, where it’s used to fund research activities and awards throughout the divisions on campus.

Mark Saffman was awarded a WARF professorship. These professorships come with $100,000 and honor faculty who have made major contributions to the advancement of knowledge, primarily through their research endeavors, but also as a result of their teaching and service activities. Award recipients choose the names associated with their professorships. Saffman, the Johannes Rydberg Professor of Physics and director of The Wisconsin Quantum Institute, first began work on atomic physics and initiated a long-term effort to develop quantum computers. He is known for his research as a leader in the ongoing development of atomic quantum computers based on the Rydberg blockade mechanism.

In addition, physics affiliate professor Mikhail Kats received a Romnes Faculty Fellowship.

Physics undergraduates named 2022 Hilldale Fellows

Three UW–Madison undergraduate physics majors have been named 2022 Hilldale Fellows, in addition to one engineering physics major who is conducting their research in the Physics Department.

The Hilldale Undergraduate/Faculty Research Fellowship provides research training and support to undergraduates at UW–Madison. Students have the opportunity to undertake their own research project in collaboration with UW–Madison faculty or research/instructional academic staff. Approximately 97 – 100 Hilldale awards are available each year.

The students are:

  • Astronomy-Physics and Physics major Elyse Incha, in Susanna Widicus Weaver’s group (Chemistry)
  • Mathematics and Physics major Haoyi Jia, in Sridhara Dasu’s group (Physics)
  • Music and Physics major Daniel Laws, in Mary Halloran’s group (Integrative Biology)
  • Engineering physics major Nico Ranabhat, in Shimon Kolkowitz’s group (Physics)

“Physics in the Arts” earns Texty award

Congrats to Pupa Gilbert, whose Physics 109 textbook, Physics in the Arts, has earned a 2022 Textbook & Academic Authors Association (TAA) “Texty” award for Textbook Excellence.

Overall, forty-five textbooks have been awarded 2022 Textbook Awards by TAA. 12 textbooks received William Holmes McGuffey Longevity Awards, 13 textbooks received Textbook Excellence Awards, and 20 textbooks received Most Promising New Textbook Awards.

The McGuffey Longevity Award recognizes textbooks and learning materials whose excellence has been demonstrated over time. The Textbook Excellence Award recognizes excellence in current textbooks and learning materials. The Most Promising New Textbook Award recognizes excellence in 1st edition textbooks and learning materials.

The awardees were recognized during an awards ceremony today, April 27.

A testimony in support of the award for Physics in the Arts says:

Physics in the Arts is the third edition of a textbook which makes physics intriguing and even fun. It is a great effort in connecting complex physics principles with procedures and activities of artists. As artists and artisans, we create and share the beautiful through light and sound. For those of us interested in the aesthetic side of life, this book shows how a physical understanding of light and sound can expand and deepen our appreciation of the world opened up by these media. Understanding the concepts and connections of the book make their professional lives more fulfilling and more efficient.”

Texty award graphic, announcing that Pupa's book has earned a 2022 Textbook Excellence award

Lucy Steffes awarded 2022 Goldwater Scholarship

This story was adapted from one first published by University Communications

Four University of Wisconsin–Madison students have been named winners of 2022 Barry Goldwater Scholarships, one of the most prestigious awards in the U.S. for undergraduates studying the sciences.

The UW–Madison winners are sophomore Lucy Steffes and juniors Sarah Fahlberg, Elias Kemna and Samuel Neuman.

Each university in the country may nominate up to four undergraduates for the annual award. To have all four candidates win is remarkable, says Julie Stubbs, director of UW’s Office of Undergraduate Academic Awards.

Lucy Steffes is a sophomore from Milwaukee, double-majoring in astronomy-physics and physics with a certificate in German. Her freshman year, Steffes began working with astronomy professor Snezana Stanimirovic on the ALMA-SPONGE project, for which she co-authored two papers recently published in the Astrophysical Journal. The project looks at molecular formation in the interstellar medium to describe potentially star-forming regions. At the end of her freshman year, Steffes earned a Hilldale Undergraduate Research Fellowship to calculate the upper limits of molecular detections in the Magellanic Stream. She spent last summer working at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia examining the chemical composition and evolution of two globules in the Helix Nebula. This summer, she will be returning to the observatory to examine neutral atomic carbon across the Helix Nebula. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics.