Renowned theorist Amitava Bhattacharjee wins James Clerk Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics

Written by
John Greenwald
Sept. 9, 2022

Amitava Bhattacharjee, a distinguished plasma physicist and head of the Theory Department at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) from 2012 to 2021, has won the 2022 James Clerk Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics. The honor from the American Physical Society-Division of Plasma Physics (APS-DPP), named for a Scottish 19th Century father of physics who established the basic theory of electromagnetism, recognizes “outstanding contributions to the field of plasma physics.”

Extensive contributions

The worldwide APS honored Bhattacharjee, a Princeton University professor of astrophysical sciences, for his extensive contributions to the study of plasma physics, the fourth state of matter that fuels fusion reactions and makes up 99% of the physical universe. The high honor, declares the award, goes for his “seminal theoretical investigations of a wide range of fundamental plasma processes, including magnetic reconnection, magnetohydrodynamic turbulence, dynamo action, and dusty plasmas, and for pioneering contributions to linking laboratory plasmas to space and astrophysical plasmas.”

“I feel happy and honored to receive this recognition from the plasma physics community,” Bhattacharjee said. “Several of my mentors and teachers received this honor, and I am glad to be in their company. I would not be here without my collaboration with many graduate students and postdoctoral colleagues whose research it has been my privilege to supervise, many of whom are now intellectual leaders in their own right.” 

His ongoing roles include leading the Whole Device Modeling Application (WDMApp), an exascale project that aims to simulate an entire magnetically confined fusion plasma, and playing a leading role in the Simons Collaboration on Hidden Symmetries and Fusion Energy that he established as a partnership of Princeton University and an international consortium of institutions that aims to optimize the design of twisty stellarators.

He also serves as founding director of the Princeton Center for Heliophysics, a Princeton-PPPL collaboration that investigates the impact of the sun and planets throughout the solar system, and director of the Max Planck Princeton Center, which studies the role of plasma physics in the laboratory, astrophysical, and space plasmas.

Mentorship of next generation

“My primary focus is on research and mentorship of the next generation of leaders in plasma physics, broadly construed,” he said. “I search for fundamental perspectives on plasma processes in various phenomena in fusion, astrophysical, and space plasmas.” 

Bhattacharjee continues to explore wide-ranging fields of plasma science. “The Hidden Symmetries and Fusion Energy project, supported by the Simons Foundation and focused on stellarators, has been renewed, and we look forward to continuing to build on the breakthroughs of the last four years in foundational stellarator theory and optimization,” he said. 

“The fusion exascale computing project on a whole-device-model of fusion plasmas, supported by the DOE, has met all its milestones successfully and is well-poised to exploit the power of the first exascale computers in the USA,” he said. In addition, he pointed out, “the Princeton Center for Heliophysics is embarking on a new global state-of-the-art computational suite for space weather for planetary magnetospheres and exoplanets, supported by the National Science Foundation.”

Achievements widely recognized

His achievements are widely recognized. “Amitava has an amazing ability to discern physics linkages between disparate branches of plasma physics, and to absorb quickly the physics essentials of those disparate subjects,” said Stewart Prager, former director of PPPL who recruited Bhattacharjee to head Theory in 2012. “He has made major contributions to fusion and space physics and the sum of these contributions is enormously impressive.”

That sentiment is well agreed upon. “This is a wonderful recognition of Amitava’s many contributions to plasma theory,” said PPPL Director Steve Cowley. 

Concurred Nat Fisch, Professor of Astrophysical Sciences and Director of the Princeton Program in Plasma Physics: “Professor Bhattacharjee is known as a scholar with a broad research agenda and a gift for teaching, as well as an inspirational and enterprising scientific leader. This significant recognition also lends prestige to Princeton's graduate program because of his dual connections to it: one, as a member of our faculty; and, two, as a distinguished alumnus himself of our graduate program, who after many career turns has fortuitously for us returned to Princeton.”

Bhattacharjee received his doctorate from Princeton in 1981 and has master’s degrees from Princeton and the University of Michigan and undergraduate honors from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. He arrived as head of PPPL Theory from an endowed professorship at the University of New Hampshire after teaching at the University of Iowa and Columbia University. Under his leadership, which the University of Oxford’s Felix Para-Diaz has succeeded, the department advanced its widespread exploration of fusion science and seized opportunities for growth in fields ranging from advanced computing and high-energy-density physics to space science and plasma astrophysics. 

Remarkable breadth and depth

“Amitava is a physicist of remarkable breadth and depth,” said David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation and an emeritus professor of Princeton Astrophysical Sciences. “Amitava has made important contributions to solar physics, plasma physics and advancing fusion. He has played an essential role in revitalizing plasma physics at Princeton through his own research, his students, and his leadership of the theory group at PPPL, and has built strong connections between the lab and campus.”

Bhattacharjee has won numerous honors and has led and served on many fusion panels throughout his career. He holds fellowships in the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Geophysical Union. He was a Fulbright Research Scholar and Invited Professor at the Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau (France). Recently, he has served on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Decadal Assessment of Plasma Science. 

Looking back, Bhattacharjee expresses “deep gratitude to my late parents who worked hard and made many sacrifices to give me a good education despite difficult economic circumstances, and to a loving family in India and the U.S., which has been a pillar of support.”

Looking forward, he says, “I feel fortunate to be a plasma physicist. Theoretical plasma physics is a beautiful field of research that combines subtle concepts in physics, applied mathematics, and powerful numerical computation with wide-ranging implications for science and technology. And now more than ever, fusion power is closer to being realized and has the potential to change the world. So I am excited about the future.” 

Bhattacharjee becomes the fourth PPPL Maxwell Prize winner currently  at the Laboratory. Preceding him in that capacity are Masaaki Yamada, a Distinguished Laboratory Research Fellow, who won the Prize in 2015; Nat Fisch, who won in 2005; and Russell Kulsrud, a physicist emeritus and winner in 1993. 

This year’s honor will be presented in October at the 64th APS-DPP annual meeting in Spokane, Washington and includes a $10,000 cash award. 

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