New Theory Head to join PPPL
Physicist Amitava Bhattacharjee is returning to his academic roots. He arrives as the new head of the Theory Department at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) on August 27, more than 30 years after completing his doctoral work here. He studied at PPPL from 1977 to 1980 while earning his M. A. and Ph.D. in astrophysical sciences from Princeton University, which runs the Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
His past came flooding back to Bhattacharjee when he gave a talk at PPPL in February while interviewing for the job, which includes a full professorship in the Princeton Department of Astrophysical Sciences. “When I looked at the audience and saw my former teachers, friends and even former students, I felt that I had arrived,” he said. “That does make this appointment very special to me."
Bhattacharjee comes to PPPL from the University of New Hampshire, where he held an endowed professorship in the Department of Physics and ran the Center for Integrated Computation and Analysis of Reconnection and Turbulence, a joint center with Dartmouth College that is supported by the DOE. Along the way he taught at the University of Iowa and Columbia University, and established himself as a leading theoretician in plasma physics disciplines including fusion energy, space and astrophysical plasmas, and dusty plasmas. Bhattacharjee “brings great breadth, scholarship, and leadership experience to PPPL,” said PPPL Director Stewart Prager in announcing the appointment.
The new department head replaces Allen Boozer, a professor of applied physics at Columbia University who served as interim head of Theory from October 2011 through last May and will teach at Columbia in the fall.
Bhattacharjee takes a broad view of his new role. “First and foremost, I would like to learn what colleagues in the theory group are doing and what really excites them,” Bhattacharjee said. He plans to help develop programs “that continue the PPPL theory group’s pre-eminence in the world in fusion physics and plasma physics more broadly, encompassing space and astrophysical plasmas.”
A key goal will be developing software that high-performance supercomputers can use to simulate the behavior of complex dynamics in plasmas and guide fusion experiments. Creating codes for such computer systems, in which hundreds of thousands of microprocessors operate together, represents the next frontier in computing and “the third leg of discovery, in addition to experiment and theory,” Bhattacharjee said.
PPPL is already simulating interesting plasma regimes “in machines that were a dream a decade ago,” he added, and the Laboratory “has a very long tradition of excelling” in the simulation area. The fruits of such research could contribute to the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX), the Laboratory’s major fusion facility that is undergoing a $94 million upgrade, and to other fusion projects around the world.
These include ITER, the huge fusion experiment that the European Union, the United States and five other countries are building in the south of France to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion power. The Laboratory “has a leading and very important role to play” in contributing knowledge to ITER, Bhattacharjee said. “I hope to help develop a new narrative for plasma theory in the era of ITER,” he added, “as fusion moves closer to being realized, and plasma physics thrives as one of the exciting interdisciplinary fields of physics and engineering.”
Bhattacharjee grew up in India and received a bachelor’s degree in physics with first-class honors from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. He came to the United States to study at the University of Michigan, where he earned master’s degrees in physics and nuclear engineering before moving on to Princeton.
Joining Bhattacharjee at Princeton will be his wife, Melissa Deem, who has been an associate professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire. She now becomes an associate research scholar and lecturer in the Princeton Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. The couple has three children: Daughters Shikha, a student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Maya, a recent graduate of the University of Rochester and now a member of the Teach for America Corps in New York City; and son Arun, who is entering elementary school in Princeton.