Hong Qin wins 2023 John Dawson Award for Excellence in Plasma Physics Research

Written by
Raphael Rosen
Sept. 27, 2023

Physicist Hong Qin of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) is the winner of the 2023 John Dawson Award for Excellence in Plasma Physics Research. Qin shares the American Physical Society (APS) honor for establishing and shaping the field of geometric algorithms that preserve fundamental structures in plasma physics calculations with Philip Morrison of the University of Texas at Austin and Eric Sonnendrücker of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Germany.

The recognition bears the name of pioneering physicist John Dawson, who joined PPPL in 1956 when it was called Project Matterhorn and ran the Theory Department from 1966 to 1973. “Winning this award is a great honor,” Qin said. “But it’s an even greater honor to have the APS recognize this new field. Now, young researchers will be even more encouraged to participate in this research.”

“This is a stupendous recognition not only for Professor Qin, but also for the emerging field that he helped shape,” said PPPL physicist and Princeton University professor of astrophysical sciences Nathaniel Fisch, who heads the Princeton Program in Plasma Physics. “In addition to its potential impact, this field has a certain beauty. It draws upon profound understanding of differential geometry, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, and plasma physics to harness ever-increasing computer power to solve the most difficult problems in physics.”

Steve Cowley, PPPL director, agreed. “This research is a significant step forward for plasma physics and it comes from Hong’s deep, creative understanding of mathematics and algorithm development,” Cowley said.

Ensuring simulations are accurate

Qin’s research focuses on improving the computer programs that simulate plasma, the electrically charged fourth state of matter scientists are using to reproduce the fusion process that drives the sun and stars. The programs have bits of code known as algorithms that solve mathematical equations but do not always capture fundamental aspects of reality known as symmetries and conservation laws.

“It’s crucial that we update the algorithms so they preserve these basic physics structures and ensure that our simulations are accurate,” Qin said. “Otherwise, there may be different simulation results depending on how and where the simulations are carried out and we wouldn’t know which one is correct.”

An illustrious career

The John Dawson Award is the latest honor for Qin, who earned his doctorate from the Princeton Department of Astrophysical Sciences in 1998 and joined PPPL the same year. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society and received the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers together with the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science Early Career Scientist and Engineer Award in 2004.

Qin now is a principal research physicist at PPPL and a lecturer with the rank of professor in the Princeton Program in Plasma Physics. “It is noteworthy that Professor Qin trained many of the researchers who are now themselves advancing this field at universities around the world,” Fisch said. “Through his mentoring and teaching, Qin has in effect originated  a new school of thought, with Princeton now recognized as playing a central role.”

Qin will receive the Dawson Award at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physics (APS-DPP), which begins October 30 in Denver, Colorado. The honor includes $5,000 that he will share with his two fellow recipients.

“The Dawson Award rightly recognizes Hong Qin as one of the pioneers in the development of algorithms that reproduce in computers the mathematical structures underlying plasma physics,” said Felix Parra Diaz, head of the PPPL Theory Department. “I congratulate him.”

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