IMAGE: This is graduate student Yuan Shi. view more
Credit: Elle Starkman/Office of Communications
Among the intriguing issues in plasma physics are those surrounding X-ray pulsars — collapsed stars that orbit around a cosmic companion and beam light at regular intervals, like lighthouses in the sky. Physicists want to know the strength of the magnetic field and density of the plasma that surrounds these pulsars, which can be millions of times greater than the density of plasma in stars like the sun.
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have developed a theory of plasma waves that can infer these properties in greater detail than in standard approaches. The new research analyzes the plasma surrounding the pulsar by coupling Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics, which describes the motion of subatomic particles such as the atomic nuclei — or ions — and electrons in plasma. Supporting this work is the DOE Office of Science.
Quantum field theory
The key insight comes from quantum field theory, which describes charged particles that are relativistic, meaning that they travel at near the speed of light. “Quantum theory can describe certain details of the propagation of waves in plasma,” said Yuan Shi, a graduate student in the Princeton Program in Plasma Physics and lead author of a paper published July 29 in the journal Physical Review A. Understanding the interactions behind the propagation can then reveal the composition of the plasma.
Shi developed the paper with assistance from co-authors Nat Fisch, director of the Program in Plasma Physics and professor and associate chair of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, and Hong Qin, a physicist at PPPL and executive dean of the School of Nuclear Science and Technology at …