Montana State University

Canfield wins major solar physics award

January 17, 2013 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Richard Canfield has won the 2013 Hale Prize from the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society. (Photo by Deborah Haydon-Canfield).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN - A Montana State University scientist who is known for his pioneering research of the sun, outstanding leadership and mentoring has won a major award from the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society.

Solar physicist Richard Canfield will receive the 2013 Hale Prize at the AAS's annual meeting in June in Indianapolis and also at the Solar Physics Division meeting to be held in July at MSU. The award, which consists of a cash prize and medal, honors one scientist per year who has made outstanding contributions over an extended period of time to the field of solar astronomy.

Canfield was officially recognized for his "pioneering work on dynamics and radiation in solar flares and on the origins and implications of magnetic helicity in active regions, as well as his role as a leader and mentor."

MSU solar physicist David McKenzie said Canfield's research into solar flares and electromagnetic fields led to new study areas in the field of solar physics. Canfield led a team that discovered how to predict solar storms, giving astronauts and others more time to prepare for the explosive surge of energy that heads toward Earth and threatens satellites, communication systems and power grids. Canfield also made a "huge impact" on solar astronomy by training young scientists who now work at such prestigious institutions as Harvard University, NASA and the University of California, Berkeley.

"It's very exciting, and it's certainly well deserved," McKenzie said of Canfield's award. "Once we started to think about it, it was really obvious all the contributions Dick has made to the field."

McKenzie and other MSU colleagues nominated Canfield for the Hale Prize, and five solar physicists from around the world signed letters of support. Canfield supervised three of those physicists when they were postdoctoral researchers.

"To me, the Hale Prize is defined by the people who have been given that prize," Canfield said. "There's an absolutely awesome list of those people, and I admire them so strongly for their contributions to the field, for their expertise and intellect."

Canfield is the third MSU scientist to receive the Hale Prize. Loren Acton, who was nominated by Canfield, received one in 2000 for his pioneering, instrumental, and analytical work in soft X-ray observations of the active sun, and for his active and helpful support of research and researchers in this and other areas of solar physics. Eric Priest - a professor at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom, also affiliated with MSU - received his Hale Prize in 2002 for contributing to investigations of the role of the magnetic field in solar activity, and for his tireless advocacy of solar physics in all corners of the world.

Twenty-six people have received the Hale Prize since it was first awarded in 1978. The fourth recipient, Leo Goldberg, offered Canfield his first job in the mid-1950s at the University of Michigan. The Hale Prize - given every other year for the first 20 years and annually since then -- memorializes American solar astronomer George Ellery Hale.

In addition to receiving his award, Canfield will give guest lectures at the meetings where he will receive his prize. Canfield said he plans to discuss magnetic helicity in a way that the general public can understand and solar physicists can enjoy. Magnetic helicity refers to electromagnetic fields on the sun that twist and writhe like an uncoiling garden hose. During solar eruptions, these fields release massive amounts of energy toward Earth, affecting space weather, causing aurora borealis and disrupting communications on Earth. That field of study has matured over the years, going from theoretical discussions to an observable phenomenon that can be measured, Canfield said.

"It's been an intellectually very rich topic," Canfield said.

Canfield, now 75, said he became interested in astronomy while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He took an astronomy course as a freshman. The next summer, he got a job at the McMath-Hulbert Solar Observatory, and his career grew from there.

Canfield came to MSU in 1996 as a research professor in the Department of Physics. From 1985 to 1996, he was a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii and astronomer at the Institute for Astronomy. Before that, he worked at the University of California, the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Colorado, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, and the University of Michigan.

Canfield's many honors have included a 2010 solar physics conference named for him and dedicated to him. The conference honored Canfield for his contributions to understanding solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu