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Graduate student plasma physicist Alexander Glasser wins Princeton University Fellowship

Graduate student Alexander Glasser, who arrived at the Program in Plasma Physics at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) after nearly a decade working on Wall Street, has won a highly competitive Charlotte Elizabeth Procter Honorific Fellowship from Princeton University. The fellowship provides full tuition and a stipend for the 2019-2020 academic year for students “displaying the highest scholarly excellence in graduate work.”

Glasser, who is entering his fifth year in the Program in Plasma Physics, was surprised and honored to receive the award. “I am grateful to the graduate school and to the department for supporting our research,” he said.

Research interests

Among his research interests is creating computer codes that preserve the fundamental physical laws of conservation of energy and momentum in fusion plasmas. The work could help simulate plasmas used in fusion devices and help achieve fusion energy.

Glasser earned his bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from Harvard University in 2006 and went to work as a portfolio manager and director of quantitative analysis at a Wall Street hedge fund. He later served as director of risk management for another fund while earning a master’s degree in applied physics from Columbia University in 2015.

“After a time I felt that something was missing,” Glasser said of his hedge-fund work. He quit Wall Street for the Program in Plasma Physics the year he earned his master’s degree. “My love for physics recaptured my attention and I wanted to pursue something that was true,” he said. “At the end of any sufficiently long chain of ‘why’ questions you always come to physics.”

Glasser and his adviser, Hong Qin, a Principal Research Physicist at PPPL and Lecturer with the Rank of Professor of the Program in Plasma Physics, now seek to develop computer codes that reflect the conservation of energy, momentum and charge in fusion plasmas. Such conservation is a basic law of physics that current codes do not accurately capture. “Our trust in physical simulations can be strengthened by constructing them to preserve fundamental physical laws,” Glasser said.

Revising the notion of space-time

His theoretical work revises the popular notion of space and time — or space-time — which is commonly thought to be continuous.  "Alex is demonstrating that space-time and the laws of physics are discrete,” said Qin, “and these discrete structures and laws are perfect numerical algorithms for simulating fusion plasmas on modern exascale computers. Philosophically, the most fundamental theoretical structures can indeed be the most useful ones."

Glasser feels “very fortunate to find myself here to investigate this very interesting subject that could help develop fusion energy. Fusion could become a remarkable source of stability for the whole planet,’’ he said. “Who knows what technologies could be spurred by mastery of fusion energy? This endeavor just seems too valuable to pass up.”

Glasser “came to us very differently from our normal recruits,” said Nat Fisch, Princeton University Professor of Astrophysical Sciences who heads the Program in Plasma Physics, referring to Glasser’s Wall Street background.  “He quickly made himself very useful, advancing what I would call very practical aspects of the field. At the same time, he aimed extraordinarily high in thinking creatively and ambitiously about what could take computational plasma physics in new directions, if not theoretical physics as well. He is also a gifted teacher; he was a wonderful teaching assistant in my introductory course.  We are looking for great things from him.”

Fourth recent Procter Fellowship winner

Glasser is the fourth Program in Plasma Physics graduate student to win a Procter fellowship in recent years. Previous winners include Nate Ferraro, now a PPPL research physicist who received the honor in 2006, and Paul Schmit and Jonathan Squire, who earned their doctorates in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Schmit is a physicist at Sandia National Laboratories; Squire is a physicist at the University of Otago in his native New Zealand.

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit energy.gov/science(link is external).

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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