Rice’s Matthew Levy becomes first US physicist to win Newton fellowship

Within one month, newly minted Ph.D. lands positions at Oxford, Livermore, Stanford

Matthew Levy ’14 wasted no time launching his career in high-energy density plasma astrophysics. Levy, who just completed his Ph.D. at Rice in December, landed positions in January at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., and the Stanford Institute for Material Energy Sciences in Menlo Park, Calif. He topped it off Jan. 20 by becoming the first American physicist to be awarded a prestigious Newton International Fellowship by the Royal Society of the United Kingdom.

Matthew Levy

The Newton postdoctoral fellowship — one of the U.K.’s most prestigious — will allow Levy to study for two years at Oxford University, where he’ll continue his exploration of new physics at extreme intensities using both current and next-generation laser systems.

“Matthew has been identified as one of America’s brightest theoretical plasma physicists to have graduated in the past decade,” said Peter Norreys, Levy’s sponsor and professor of Inertial Fusion Science at the University of Oxford and Plasma Physics group leader at the Central Laser Facility, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Livermore had previously recognized Levy with a Lawrence Scholarship in 2011, and his Oxford research will extend petawatt laser absorption work that he began under the auspices of Livermore physicist Scott Wilks and as a graduate student of Rice Professor Matthew Baring.

“Matthew has been very selective in choosing research problems that focus on high-impact science of broad interest, both for his Ph.D. and now for this Newton Fellowship,” Baring said.

Levy’s planned research involves devising new ways to harness the immensely strong electromagnetic fields comprising high-power laser light to test aspects of the nonlinear quantum vacuum in the laboratory. These nonlinear effects, defining the impact of superstrong electromagnetic fields on space time, are expected to have a profound influence on the light seen from neutron stars. Baring has extensively researched the telltale signs of the effects that may be exhibited in X-rays and gamma-rays from these incredibly dense stars, which pack more mass than the sun into a space no larger than one of Houston’s inner-loop suburbs.

“The laser power levels required to access this exotic regime are seven orders of magnitude beyond what has been demonstrated using contemporary laser amplification technology,” Levy said. “Therefore, if we are to access this promising regime, sophisticated physics-based techniques are needed. To succeed, we will need to develop an advanced understanding of the complex laser-absorption processes taking place at the 10-petawatt scale and beyond.”

At such intense energy scales, quantum effects that are negligible at lower energies can no longer be ignored. Levy plans to incorporate such effects into a new energy-absorption model that he, Baring, Wilks and colleagues published earlier this year in Nature Communications. This model provides fundamental bounds to the energy deposited into heating plasma with intense lasers.  Levy’s planned research at Oxford includes extending it to the relativistic quantum domain, with the prospect of profoundly new insights that could help focus the future of inertial fusion research.

Supporting these efforts, Levy also took positions this month as a visiting scientist at Livermore and as an affiliated scientist at the Stanford Institute for Material Energy Sciences, a joint institute between Stanford University and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center National Accelerator Laboratory.

In addition to the Newton Fellowship, Levy has been elected a Junior Research Fellow of Wolfson College at the University of Oxford, a position lasting up to six years. As a fellow of Wolfson, Levy will reside in the college, be responsible for mentoring Oxford students and have the opportunity to participate in the governance of the college.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.