Newswise — Exploration of the processes behind supernova shockwaves has won Will Fox, a physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), the John Dawson Award for Excellence in Plasma Physics Research. The honor, awarded by the American Physical Society (APS), recognizes “a recent outstanding achievement in plasma physics research.” Fox shares this year’s award with 10 physicists in the U.S., Japan, and Britain.

Exciting progress

“I appreciate this recognition from the APS and the community,” Fox said of the award, which is named for pioneering physicist John Dawson who headed the PPPL Theory Department from 1966 to 1973. “The groups receiving this award have made a great deal of progress, and I think that’s exciting,” Fox said. “And I appreciate the research environment at PPPL that embodies everything from fusion to astrophysics.”

The award consists of $5,000 to be divided equally among the winners and a certificate citing their accomplishments. Presentation will be made in November at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society-Division of Plasma Physics, which will be held virtually this year.

“Will continues to break new ground in laboratory astrophysics,” said Jon Menard, deputy director for research at PPPL. “His work and insights have frequently opened doors to new discoveries.”

Generating magnetic fields

Fox’s research, conducted with colleagues on the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, provided the first demonstration of a process that generates magnetic fields in the cosmos. The previously theorized process, called the ion Weibel instability, creates the fields when two astrophysical plasmas stream through each other.

The colleagues next demonstrated that these fields can produce supernova shockwaves — walls of plasma that travel like tsunami waves at supersonic speeds and can accelerate cosmic rays to near the speed of light. The surprise findings demonstrated that the instability can create such shockwaves despite the fact that outer space particles are collisionless — meaning that shocks cannot occur as they do here on Earth when sound barrier-breaking aircraft push high pressure air fronts against surrounding air particles to produce sonic booms.

Fox earned his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2009 and spent four years as a scientist at the University of New Hampshire before joining PPPL. At New Hampshire Fox collaborated with Amitava Bhattacharjee, then a professor at the university and now head of the PPPL Theory Department. The two physicists have maintained a collaborative relationship.

Fox did his undergraduate work at Princeton University, where PPPL physicist Hantao Ji, now a Princeton professor of astrophysical sciences, advised Fox’s senior thesis. As a Princeton undergraduate Fox spent a summer in what is now a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) at General Atomics in San Diego, an institution with which PPPL maintains a long-term collaborative relationship.

Second APS award

The Dawson honor is the second APS award that Fox has won in as many years. His leadership of laboratory experiments that bring astrophysical processes down to Earth received the 2019 Thomas H. Stix Award for Outstanding Early Career Contributions to Plasma Physics Research. Stix founded the graduate Princeton Program in Plasma Physics at PPPL.

Fox continues to combine theoretical simulations and practical experiments. “There’s a great relationship between theory and experiment at PPPL and theory is really important,” Fox has said. “It makes you think about the big picture and the important questions to focus on.”

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit