Welcome, Professor Vladimir Zhdankin!

profile photo of Vladimir Zhdankin
Vladimir Zhdankin (credit: Flatiron Institute)

Theoretical plasma astrophysicist Vladimir Zhdankin ‘11, PhD ’15, returns to UW–Madison as an assistant professor of physics on January 1, 2024. As a student, Zhdankin worked with Prof. Stas Boldyrev on solar wind turbulence and basic magnetohydrodynamic turbulence, which are relevant for near-Earth types of space plasmas. After graduating, Zhdankin began studying plasma astrophysics of more extreme environments. He first completed a postdoc at CU-Boulder, then a NASA Einstein Fellowship at Princeton University. He joins the department from the Flatiron Institute in New York, where he is currently a Flatiron Research Fellow.

Please give an overview of your research. 

These days, most of my interest is in the field of plasma astrophysics — the application of plasma physics to astrophysical problems. Much of the matter in the universe is in a plasma state, such as stars, the matter around black holes, and the interstellar medium in the galaxy. I’m interested in understanding the plasma processes in those types of systems. My focus is particularly on really high energy systems, like plasmas around black holes or neutron stars, which are dense objects where you could get extreme plasmas where relativistic effects are important. The particles are traveling at very close to the speed of light, and there’s natural particle acceleration occurring in these systems. They also radiate intensely, you could see them from halfway across the universe. There’s a need to know the basic plasma physics in these conditions if you want to interpret observations of those systems. A lot of my work involves doing plasma simulations of turbulence in these extreme parameter regimes.

What are one or two research projects you’ll focus on the most first?

One of them is on making reduced models of plasmas by using non-equilibrium statistical mechanical ideas. Statistical mechanics is one of the core subjects of physics, but it doesn’t really seem to apply to plasmas very often. This is because a lot of plasmas are in this regime that’s called collisionless plasma, where they are knocked out of thermal equilibrium, and then they always exist in a non-thermal state. That’s not what standard statistical mechanics is applicable to. This is one of the problems that I’m studying, whether there is some theoretical framework to study these non-equilibrium plasmas, to understand basic things like: what does it mean for entropy to be produced in these types of plasmas? The important application of this work is to explain how are particles accelerated to really high energies in plasmas. The particle acceleration process is important for explaining cosmic rays which are bombarding the Earth, and then also explaining the highest energy radiation which we see from those systems.

Another thing I’m thinking about these days is plasmas near black holes. In the center of the Milky Way, for example, there’s a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*, which was recently imaged a year or two ago by the Event Horizon Telescope. It’s a very famous picture. What you see is the shape of the black hole and then all the plasma in the vicinity, which is in the accretion disk. I’m trying to understand the properties of that turbulent plasma and how to model the type of radiation coming out of the system. And then also whether we should expect neutrinos to be coming out, because you would need to get very high energy protons in order to produce neutrinos. And it’s still an open question of whether or not that happens in these systems.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?

It’s just a perfect match in many ways. It really feels like a place where I’m confident that I could succeed and accomplish my goals, be an effective mentor, and build a successful group. It has all the resources I need, it has the community I need as a plasma physicist to interact with. I think it has a lot to offer to me and likewise, I have a lot to offer to the department there. I’m also really looking forward to the farmers’ market and cheese and things like that. You know, just the culture there.

What is your favorite element and/or elementary particle?

I like the muon. It is just a heavy version of the electron, I don’t remember, something like 100 times more massive or so. It’s funny that such particles exist and this is like the simplest example of one of those fundamental particles which we aren’t really familiar with, it’s just…out there. You could imagine situations where you just replace electron with a muon and then you get slightly different physics out of it.

What hobbies and interests do you have?

They change all the time. But some things I’ve always done: I like running, skiing, bouldering indoors, disk golf, racquet sports, and hiking. (Cross country or downhill skiing?) It’s honestly hard to choose which one I prefer more. In Wisconsin, definitely cross country. If I’m in real mountains, the Alps or the Rockies, then downhill is just an amazing experience.

Ke Fang, Ellen Zweibel earn Simons Foundation funding to study electrodynamics in extreme environments

Much of what we understand about fundamental physics is based on experiments done in the convenient “lab” of earth. But our planet is just one location, with its own relatively mild electromagnetic field. Do forces and energies work the same on earth as they do in all corners of the universe?

profile photo of Ellen Zweibel
Ellen Zweibel
profile photo of Ke Fang
Ke Fang

“It’s never guaranteed, as we see many theories break down at extreme environments,” says University of Wisconsin­–Madison physics professor Ke Fang. “For example, a neutron star offers a magnetic field that is trillions of times stronger than on the Earth, and magnetars offer a field that is hundreds of trillions of time stronger. They are natural places to test many fundamental physics theories.”

Fang and UW–Madison astronomy and physics professor Ellen Zweibel are part of a new research collaboration announced August 21 by the Simons Foundation. The Simons Collaboration on Extreme Electrodynamics of Compact Sources (SCEECS) will study how electrodynamics — the interaction of electric currents and magnetic fields — behave in extreme environments in the distant universe using a combination of theory, simulation, and observation.

SCEECS has six main research questions, three centered on understanding electrodynamics in neutron stars and three centered in black holes. Each question pairs at least one senior-level investigator with an early-career co-investigator. Zweibel serves as the lead investigator on her black hole question, and she is paired with Richard Anantua at UT-San Antonio. Fang is co-investigator on a neutron star question, and she is paired with Anatoly Spitkovsky at Princeton.

a wispy, circular set of colorful lines emanate from a center point, indicating the electromagnetic field shooting out of a neutron star
“Particle in cell” simulation of the magnetic field and electric current associated with a spinning and strongly magnetized neutron star (adapted from Philippov and Kramer 2023) | From SCEECS

The neutron star “labs” that Fang is using are amongst the most dense stars in the universe — as small as 10 kilometers in diameter and with densities a million billion times that of water. High energy particles streaming from neutron stars are detectable on Earth, but they tend to be significantly altered by the time they make it here.

“How do those particles survive, in the sense that these extreme energy particles would interact with the surrounding media and produce secondary particles, and how do these interactions play a role in converting what you see on Earth?” Fang’s research asks. “There are also several major questions revealed by recent observations, such as extended TeV gamma-ray halos around neutron stars that are completely new phenomena. We would like to go from first principle physics to understand these phenomena.”

Zweibel’s research will use the extreme environment of spinning black holes, where the electromagnetic field has recently been identified as a major factor in accretion flows, or the movement of gases into the dense center. Her question asks how these accretion flows contribute to magnetizing black holes to form relativistic jets, or powerful emissions of radiation and high-energy particles.

a small black point at the center of the image is flanked by two brown-ish blobs made of flowing lines, like magma flowing down a volcano. Grey parabolic lines also shoot out the top and bottom.
Simulation of the magnetic field threading the black hole and confined by orbiting gas (adapted from Ripperda et al. 2022) | From SCEECS

“Accretion disks, their magnetic fields, and their magnetized jets are found throughout the Universe. They play essential roles in star formation, in the evolution of double, or binary stars, and in many other astrophysical settings,” Zweibel says. “The magnetized accretion disks surrounding black holes are by far the most extreme, and test our theories to the limits. Remarkably, we can circle back to laboratory plasma experiments, including some right here at UW, to study magnetized disks and jets as well.”

SCEECS is housed at Stanford University and includes researchers from 14 other US and international universities. UW­–Madison and Columbia University are the only universities that have more than one investigator in the collaboration. Most of the funding will be used to support investigators, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students.

The collaboration plans to host an in-person kick-off in October at Stanford with regular virtual meetings throughout the year. Those meetings will be a place where everyone involved in the research, including students, postdocs, and faculty, can provide updates and seek feedback. Larger-scale collaborations such as this one are nothing new to physicists, but those groups are almost always made up of experimental physicists.

“It’s rare for theorists to be in a larger collaboration because we’re usually working alone or in a small group,” Fang says. “This program is exciting because it collects leading theorists in the field from many different institutions and provides a network for us to collaborate with each other.”

The Simons Foundation’s mission is to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. The Foundation makes grants in four areas, including Mathematics and Physical Sciences, through which this collaboration is supported.

New study provides understanding of astrophysical plasma dynamics

Stars, solar systems, and even entire galaxies form when astrophysical plasma — the flowing, molten mix of ions and electrons that makes up 99% of the universe — orbits around a dense object and attaches, or accretes, on to it. Physicists have developed models to explain the dynamics of this process, but in the absence of sending probes to developing stars, the experimental confirmation has been hard to come by.

In a study published in Physical Review Letters September 25, University of Wisconsin–Madison physicists recreated an astrophysical plasma in the lab, allowing them to investigate the plasma dynamics that explain the accretion disk formation. They found that electrons, not the momentum-carrying ions, dominate the magnetic field dynamics in less dense plasmas, a broad category that includes nearly all laboratory astrophysical plasma experiments.

plasma from a sun-like star in the upper left corner is coming out like a string that swirls like a whirlpool around a dot in the center of the image
An artist’s conception of the accretion disk | Credit: P. Marenfeld/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Like water swirling around and down an open drain, plasma in an accretion disk spins faster nearer the heavy object in the center than further away. As the plasma falls inward, it loses angular momentum. A basic physics principle says that angular momentum needs to be conserved, so the faster rotating plasma must be transferring its momentum away from the center.

“This is an outstanding problem in astrophysics — how does that angular momentum get transported in an accretion disk?” says Ken Flanagan, a postdoctoral researcher with the department of physics at UW–Madison and lead author of the study.

The simplest explanation is friction, but it was ruled out when the corresponding accretion times, in some cases, would be longer than the age of the universe. A model developed by theoretical physicists posits that turbulence, or the chaotic changes in plasma flow speeds, can explain the phenomenon on a more realistic time scale.

“So ad hoc, astrophysicists say, ‘Okay, there’s this much turbulence and that explains it,’” Flanagan says. “Which is good, but you need to call in the plasma physicists to piece together where that turbulence comes from.”

Flanagan and colleagues, including UW­–Madison physics professor Cary Forest, wanted to build off an idea that the turbulence was coming from an intrinsic property of some plasmas known as magnetorotational instability. This instability is seen in plasmas that are flowing fastest near the center and are in the presence of a weak magnetic field.

“And it’s lucky because there are weak magnetic fields all around the universe, and the flow profile in the accretion disks is set by the gravitational force,” Flanagan says. “So, we thought this plasma instability could be responsible for turbulence, and it explains how accretion disks work.”

To investigate if this intrinsic plasma instability explained the observation, the researchers turned to the Big Red Ball (BRB), a three-meter-wide hollow sphere with a 3000 magnets at its inner surface and various probes inside. They activate a plasma by ionizing gas inside the BRB, then applying a current to drive its movement.

a 3-meter-diameter sphere, painted red and with tons of probes all around it
The Big Red Ball is one of several pieces of scientific equipment being used to study the fundamental properties of plasma in order to better understand the universe, where the hot, ionized gas is abundant. | Photo by Jeff Miller / UW–Madison)

Because they had previously been encountering problems in driving very fast flows, they tried a new technique to drive the flow across the entire volume of plasma, as opposed to just the edges. Fortuitously, the BRB had magnetic field probes from a previous experiment still attached, and when they activated the plasma under these conditions, they found that this new flow setup amplified the magnetic field strength with a peak at the center nearly twenty times the baseline strength.

“We didn’t expect to see that at all, because usually in plasma physics the simplest model is to think of plasmas as one fluid with the heavier ions dominating momentum,” Flanagan says. “The results suggested that the plasma is in the Hall regime, which means the electrons and their motion are entirely responsible for the plasma moving around magnetic fields.”

If they were correct in assuming it was the Hall effect that was driving magnetic field amplification, the equations governing magnetic fields and electric currents say that if you drive the current in the opposite direction, the strength of the magnetic field would be canceled out. So, they switched the current and measured the magnetic field strength: it was zero, supporting the Hall regime explanation.

While the results are not directly applicable to the plasma accretion disks around, say, a very dense black hole, they do directly impact the earth-bound experiments that attempt to recreate and study them.

“Nearly all plasma astrophysical experiments operate in the Hall regime, and so this sort of large qualitative effect is something you’re going to have to pay attention to when you make these sorts of flows in laboratory astrophysical plasmas,” Flanagan says. “In that sense, this work has a pretty broad impact for lots of different research areas.”

This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (#1518115) and by the U.S. Department of Energy (#DE-SC0018266).