Dana Longcope, Ph.D., head of the Department of Physics at MSU, won the Arctowski Medal for his work in the field of solar physics. Longcope’s work focuses on the magnetic fields of the sun and related phenomena. He has been a professor at MSU since 1996.
In graduate school, Longcope studied plasma physics, the physics of hot ionized gases. “The group included people who studied hot ionized gases in nuclear fusion reactors, various kinds of laboratory experiments, the upper layer of the Earth’s atmosphere known as the ionosphere, the magnetosphere and the sun,” Longcope said. From there, he branched out into studying physics related to the sun.
Longcope specializes in magnetic reconnection, the process by which magnetic fields break and reconnect, releasing massive amounts of energy. This creates solar flares and coronal mass ejection. The enormous amounts of energy and charged particles carried by these phenomena wreak havoc on the Earth’s upper atmosphere and can potentially cause geomagnetic storms. These storms disturb Earth’s magnetic field and interfere with GPS, satellite, radio, cellular communications and power grids.
Scientists can spot these solar flares by observing the amount of X-ray radiation emitted from the sun. “The sun’s always producing X-ray radiation, and when one of these flares goes off it increases by a factor of a hundred or a thousand. We see stars where this same thing is happening,” Longcope said. “You can’t see any details about the magnetic field or the energy release. You just see the X-ray plots go way, way up and then come back down, increasing very rapidly and decreasing more gradually.”
By researching the sun, scientists can learn more about magnetic fields and plasmas in the universe. Longcope gave an example, “My colleagues…have been studying the way that the sun’s magnetic generator works. The Earth generates a magnetic field in exactly the same way, but it’s in the core of the earth which is electrically conducting. It’s not a plasma, it’s a molten metal. But it’s so difficult to study there because it’s in the middle of the earth and we’re so far, we’re out on the edges. We understand much more about the Earth’s magnetic field by studying the sun.”
For his work in solar physics, Longcope received the Arctowski medal—an award given to solar and space physicists every other year. The award is named after Polish-American meteorologist and Antarctic explorer Henry Arctowski. “I was very honored. What’s really great is I do this research because I love doing the research. I write papers about them [magnetic reconstructions]. Colleagues read them and it’s always nice to know that they find that work to be worthwhile,” Longcope said. “It’s a very nice feeling to know that my work is respected by my colleagues. That they read the work and they think highly of it.”
Longcope and the other award winners will be recognized during the National Academy of Sciences’ 158th annual meeting held from April 24-26.