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“Rip” Perkins, pioneering PPPL physicist and a design leader for ITER, dies at 80

Francis “Rip” William Perkins Jr., a pioneering plasma physicist whose contributions to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) ranged from seminal advances in fusion energy and astrophysical research to the education of a generation of scientists, died on July 26 in Boulder, Colo. He was 80 and had long battled Parkinson’s disease.

During his career at PPPL, which he joined in 1966, Perkins led the Theory Department from 1980 to 1986 and was instrumental in bringing the Magnetic Reconnection Experiment (MRX) — the world’s leading facility for studying the process that gives rise to northern lights, solar flares and geomagnetic storms — to the Laboratory. “He had a vision that laboratory experiments can contribute to solving astrophysical plasma problems,” said physicist Masaaki Yamada, principal investigator for the MRX.

Perkins went on to head a design team for the initial version of ITER, the international fusion experiment now under construction in France, and was a member of JASON, a select group of scientists that advises the U.S. government on national security and related issues 

“Rip’s breadth of knowledge was extremely impressive,” said physicist Ernest Valeo, a member of the Theory Department who did research with Perkins. “He had a commanding overview of the problems that we worked on.”

Those problems included modeling instabilities caused by the motion of waves in plasma, the hot electrically charged gas that fuels fusion reactions. Perkins brought to the task a personal warmth and good humor that encouraged cooperative efforts. “He was a very friendly and knowledgeable personality and a pleasure to work with,” recalled physicist Joel Hosea, an expert on waves in plasma.  

Gaining a nickname

Perkins grew up in Connecticut, where his childhood penchant for sleeping late led his family to dub him “Rip Van Winkle” — with “Rip” sticking as a nickname. He majored in physics at Harvard University and earned his doctorate from Cornell University, where he studied the behavior of waves in the ionosphere, a plasma-filled region of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. He worked briefly at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico before joining PPPL.

There he pioneered investigation of the plasma waves used for radio-frequency (RF) heating, a technique employed to help raise temperatures high enough for fusion to occur in laboratory experiments. Perkins’ theoretical work proved prescient: He predicted a type of wave that was found experimentally some 25 years later and has since proved essential to understanding the impact of RF heating.

As head of the Theory Department, Perkins pushed for bringing theoretical insights to bear on practical experiments. “Not only was Rip perceptive about science, but he had a very focused perspective on deliverables,” said physicist William Tang, who worked closely with Perkins and went on to become a successor as Theory Department director. 

Perkins could have an inspirational impact on students, said physicist Gregory Hammett, a member of the Theory Department who took a course from Perkins while in graduate school in Princeton. Perkins later gave a seminar that aroused Hammett’s interest in plasma turbulence, changing the direction of Hammett’s career and leading to papers co-authored with Perkins. “‘Dedicated’ would be the one word to describe Rip,” Hammett recalled. “He was dedicated to helping others in scientific enterprises and to working in fusion.”

Claire Max, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California-Santa Cruz, said Perkins “made all the difference” in enabling her to get through graduate school. “I was struggling,” she recalled, “and he had confidence in me and assured me that I would do fine. 

ITER design leader

Perkins moved to San Diego in 1993 to head the physics integration unit for the initial design of ITER — a position that he held until 1998 on assignment from PPPL. As head of the unit he coordinated efforts to determine such features as the size of the machine and the amount of heating that would be needed for its optimal operation.

The task included creation of a physics review process that proved “very, very important because it brought people together” said physicist Rich Hawryluk, who heads the ITER and Tokamaks Department at PPPL. “That began the long-term process of having people share data and work together.”

Perkins summed up the results of the unit in a final report that he gave before moving to DIII-D, the fusion facility that General Atomics operates for DOE in San Diego, where he worked on assignment from PPPL until he retired in 2005. “When Perkins gave his report on the physics basis for ITER I was so impressed,” said physicist Stephen Jardin, a colleague of Perkins at PPPL who participated in the ITER design effort. “It made me really proud to be a physicist associated with him on that project.”

Perkins maintained a deep sense of humanity and devotion to family throughout his career. He and his wife, Harolyn, raised three children who gave them six grandchildren. “He once referred to children as ‘these delightful little creatures,’” recalled physicist Cynthia Phillips, who worked with Perkins on RF heating issues. During gatherings of the JASON group, which met annually in San Diego, “Rip organized theater trips and took kids to San Diego Padres games,” said William Happer, a Princeton University physicist who chaired the JASON steering committee. “He was very kind to children and was just a wonderful person in many ways.”

In an appreciation of Perkins’ achievements, William Tang noted that “Rip’s outstanding record of scientific contributions is truly exemplary, and the energy and enthusiasm that he dedicated to the pursuit of fusion will be remembered by all. He will certainly be greatly missed.”


U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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