Stars align in new center

October 7, 2003

Plasma physics and astrophysics may sound as far apart as the Earth and sun, but a five-year, $11.25 million grant from the National Science Foundation brings together these two disciplines, which tackle similar scientific problems. The grant will fund a multi-institutional Physics Frontier Center — led by UW–Madison – — that focuses on understanding the behavior of plasma.

Plasma, a charged gas, can be found throughout the visible universe, says center director Stewart Prager, a physics professor. Stars make plasma, which can spin around them in disks. Plasma experiments here on Earth, including three at UW–Madison, use this gas to try to develop fusion energy — a clean, renewable energy that many hope one day could power entire cities.

Even though astrophysicists and plasma physicists study this gas in different contexts, Prager says the two groups can provide each other with new theories about the behavior of plasma and actual data on how it behaves in experiments: “To solve problems in astrophysics, you have to solve problems in plasma physics,” he says.” And vice versa. “The biggest gain from the new center will be the transfer of ideas.”

Tags: research