Ellen Gould Zweibel is a theoretical astrophysicist known primarily for applying plasma physics to astrophysics. She was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey. She went to college at the University of Chicago, where she majored in mathematics and was introduced to research in astronomy. She did graduate work at Princeton University, where she acquired a background in plasma physics and wrote her thesis on galactic dynamics, receiving her PhD in 1977. After a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton she joined the scientific staff of the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, CO, but was drawn back to academia and began a faculty appointment at the University of Colorado in 1981. In 2003 she moved to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is the William L. Kraushaar Professor of Astronomy and Physics. In 2016 she was awarded the American Physical Society’s James Clerk Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics “For seminal research on the energetics, stability, and dynamics of astrophysical plasmas, including those related to stars and galaxies, and for leadership in linking plasma and other astrophysical phenomena.” She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Research Interests

Ellen Gould Zweibel's research is focused on plasma effects in astrophysical systems. Most of these effects are due to an embedded magnetic field, and many of them can be grouped into a small number of basic physical processes: how magnetic fields are generated, how they exchange energy with their environments, sometimes on explosively fast timescales, their role in global instabilities, how they cause a tiny fraction of thermal particles to be accelerated to relativistic energies, and how they mediate the interaction of these relativistic particles (cosmic rays) with their gaseous environments through waves and instabilities on microscales.
Although all of these processes occur in laboratory plasmas, it is in natural plasmas that they take their most extreme forms. Zweibel and her students and postdocs have used analytical theory and numerical simulations to study the generation and evolution of magnetic fields in the Sun and stars, in galaxies, and in galaxy clusters, and have researched the effects of high energy cosmic ray particles in all of these environments. Their most recent work centers on the role of cosmic rays in star formation feedback: the self-regulation of the star formation rate in galaxies through energy and momentum input to the ambient medium by the stars themselves.

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Primary Section

Section 13: Physics

Secondary Section

Section 12: Astronomy