MSU Physicist Receives Nation's Top Award for Young Scientists

Longcope Attends White House Ceremony

by Annette Trinity-Stevens
MSU Research Editor 

 

October 24, 2000

BOZEMAN--A Montana State University-Bozeman physicist who studies the sun will receive one of the nation's top honors for young scientists today (Tuesday, Oct. 24) during a White House ceremony.

Dana Longcope, an assistant professor of physics, is one of 59 scientists nationwide to receive this year's Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Created by President Clinton in 1996, the awards are "the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers," according to a White House press release.

When reached before he left for Washington, D.C., Longcope, 36, was surprised and pleased by the award. He didn't know he had been nominated by a colleague, so he didn't understand why he received a form to fill out for security clearance at the White House.

"I'm on so many government panels, I thought it was for one of those," he said.

Longcope was nominated through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, one of eight federal agencies involved in the recognition program. Each agency has its own nomination and screening process for the awards.

For the last four years, Longcope and two other scientists have been studying the sun's magnetic fields with NASA funds.

"This is an incredible honor," said NASA chief scientist Kathie Olsen, adding that her agency is giving just six early career awards this year.

The MSU physics department "is in a state of jubilation," said department head John Hermanson. He knew Longcope was nominated some time ago by MSU research professor Richard Canfield and had a hard time keeping quiet about it.

"This is the highest honor a young scientist or engineer can receive from the federal government," Hermanson said. "Our students benefit enormously from the presence of so fine a scientist."

Today in Washington, D.C., Longcope first will attend a ceremony at NASA headquarters. He'll make a five-minute presentation on his research to senior agency officials and have his picture taken with NASA administrator Dan Goldin.

From there, he and the other winners will meet at the White House for the official ceremony at 2 p.m. Eastern time.

Originally President Clinton was expected to hand out the awards, but recent events in the Middle East will probably keep him away, said Elizabeth Gregory, a spokesperson for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Instead, Clinton's science and technology director, Neal Lane, will stand in for the president.

The awards include up to $500,000 over five years to do additional research and "advance science for important government missions," according to the White House.

Longcope has developed mathematical explanations for what solar scientists see happening in the sun's magnetic fields. Working with Canfield, MSU mathematician Isaac Klapper and former MSU research scientist Alex Pevtsov, Longcope modelled how magnetic fields, generated in a so-called dynamo deep inside the star, float up to the surface as long buoyant tubes.

For some time, physicists were puzzled by why these magnetic fields, which underlie so much of the sun's erratic behavior, twisted in unexpected ways during the two- to three-month journey from the dynamo to the surface.

Longcope's mathematical theories not only explain what other scientists were observing through satellite telescopes, they contribute to a growing understanding of the sun-earth connection. Twisted magnetic fields give rise to solar flares and related bursts called coronal mass ejections, which affect how satellites operate as well as power lines, cellular phones and related equipment on earth.

Canfield said understanding the physical nature of star dynamos "is one of the most interesting topics of modern solar and stellar research." He described Longcope's work as being "at the forefront of solar physics."

A Massachusetts native, Longcope has a Ph.D. from Cornell University. Two years ago, he received a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation. Before that, he was a Miller Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley.

He came to MSU in 1996 because "this is the best place for studying the sun," Longcope said. "[Loren] Acton and [Richard] Canfield are two of the best names in the field, plus there's a good cadre of young, talented people doing post-doctoral work. You'd be hard pressed to find this many people doing solar research at one university."

Currently Longcope teaches junior-level physics, including how to use computers to solve physics problems and an upcoming class on electricity and magnetism.

 


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