Professor Alex Schekochihin, Tutor in Physics at Merton and Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, has been awarded the Institute of Physics' 2019 Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Medal and Prize, "for elucidating the dynamics that regulate the properties of turbulent, magnetised laboratory and astrophysical plasmas."
Alex's work has important implications across a number of areas of plasma physics, from understanding turbulence and magnetic fields in space, from the solar wind to intergalactic medium, to the development of the tokamak, an apparatus used to produce controlled fusion reactions in hot plasma. One of his recent studies is described in the award citation as "Arguably ... one of the most important results in plasma physics in two decades."
Commenting on the award, Alex paid tribute to the many people who he feels have contributed to his work:
“The greatest privilege in an academic career is that one is free to think about interesting things and there are many clever and curious people around with whom one can discuss these things. With surprising regularity, something intellectually worthwhile emerges from these conversations. To the extent that this award recognises that something worthwhile did emerge, I owe it to the clever and curious people with whom it has been my good fortune to cross paths in the world of academe.”
In addition to his research accomplishments, Alex has formed and led a world-leading plasma physics group at Oxford and, together with the University of Maryland's Professor William Dorland, who is currently a Visiting Scholar at Merton, has brought the Journal of Plasma Physics back to prominence.
The Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Medal and Prize is awarded annually for distinguished contributions to plasma, solar or space physics. It is named after the British-American astrophysicist, born in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, who, in the course of her PhD studies on stellar spectra, discovered that stars are composed overwhelmingly of hydrogen and helium, in contrast to the prevailing view that the chemical makeup of the stars was much the same as that on Earth; she thereby established that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. After her doctorate, Payne-Gaposchkin carried out observations of more than three million variable stars, with her data being used to determine stellar evolution.
In a fortuitously-timed independent development, The American Physical Society has also recognised the work that Alex has done in collaboration with Gianluca Gregori at the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford and their colleagues Donald Lamb & Petros Tzeferacos of the University of Chicago and Dustin Froula of the University of Rochester. They have jointly received the society's John Dawson Award for Excellence in Plasma Physics Research, "For innovative experiments that demonstrate turbulent dynamo in the laboratory, establishing laboratory experiments as a component in the study of turbulent magnetized plasmas, and opening a new path to laboratory investigations of other astrophysical processes."