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Article

Dark Matter  

Timothy Sumner

Dark matter is one of the most fundamental and perplexing issues of modern physics. Its presence is deduced from a straightforward application of Newton’s theory of gravity to astronomical systems whose dynamical motion should be simple to understand. The success of Newton’s theory in describing the behavior of the solar system was one of the greatest achievements of the 18th century. Its subsequent use to deduce the presence of a previously unknown planet, Neptune, discovered in 1846, was the first demonstration of how minor departures from its predictions indicated additional mass. The expectation in the early 20th century, as astronomical observations allowed more distance and larger celestial systems to be studied, was that galaxies and collections of galaxies should behave like larger solar systems, albeit more complicated. However, the reality was quite different. It is not a minor discrepancy, as led to the discovery of Neptune, but it is extreme. The stars at the edges of galaxies are not behaving at all like Pluto at the edge of the solar system. Instead of having a slower orbital speed, as expected and shown by Pluto, they have the same speed as those much further in. If Newton’s law is to be retained, there must be much more mass in the galaxy than can be seen, and it must be distributed out to large distances, beyond the visible extent of the galaxy. This unseen mass is called “dark matter,” and its presence was becoming widely accepted by the 1970s. Subsequently, many other types of astrophysical observations covering many other types of object were made that came to the same conclusions. The ultimate realization was that the universe itself requires dark matter to explain how it developed the structures within it observed today. The current consensus is that one-fourth of the universe is dark matter, whereas only 1/20th is normal matter. This leaves the majority in some other form, and therein lies another mystery—“dark energy.” The modern form of Newton’s laws is general relativity, due to Albert Einstein. This offers no help in solving the problem of dark matter because most of the systems involved are nonrelativistic and the solutions to the general theory of relativity (GR) reproduce Newtonian behavior. However, it would not be right to avoid mentioning the possibility of modifying Newton’s laws (and hence GR) in such a way as to change the nonrelativistic behavior to explain the way galaxies behave, but without changing the solar system dynamics. Although this is a minority concept, it is nonetheless surviving within the scientific community as an idea. Understanding the nature of dark matter is one of the most intensely competitive research areas, and the solution will be of profound importance to astrophysics, cosmology, and fundamental physics. There is thus a huge “industry” of direct detection experiments predicated on the premise that there is a new particle species yet to be found, and which pervades the universe. There are also experiments searching for evidence of the decay of the particles via their annihilation products, and, finally, there are intense searches for newly formed unknown particles in collider experiments.

Article

Magnetohydrodynamic Equilibria  

Thomas Wiegelmann

Magnetohydrodynamic equilibria are time-independent solutions of the full magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) equations. An important class are static equilibria without plasma flow. They are described by the magnetohydrostatic equations j × B = ∇ p + ρ ∇ Ψ , ∇ × B = μ 0 j , ∇ · B = 0. B is the magnetic field, j the electric current density, p the plasma pressure, ρ the mass density, Ψ the gravitational potential, and µ 0 the permeability of free space. Under equilibrium conditions, the Lorentz force j × B is compensated by the plasma pressure gradient force and the gravity force. Despite the apparent simplicity of these equations, it is extremely difficult to find exact solutions due to their intrinsic nonlinearity. The problem is greatly simplified for effectively two-dimensional configurations with a translational or axial symmetry. The magnetohydrostatic (MHS) equations can then be transformed into a single nonlinear partial differential equation, the Grad–Shafranov equation. This approach is popular as a first approximation to model, for example, planetary magnetospheres, solar and stellar coronae, and astrophysical and fusion plasmas. For systems without symmetry, one has to solve the full equations in three dimensions, which requires numerically expensive computer programs. Boundary conditions for these systems can often be deduced from measurements. In several astrophysical plasmas (e.g., the solar corona), the magnetic pressure is orders of magnitudes higher than the plasma pressure, which allows a neglect of the plasma pressure in lowest order. If gravity is also negligible, Equation 1 then implies a force-free equilibrium in which the Lorentz force vanishes. Generalizations of MHS equilibria are stationary equilibria including a stationary plasma flow (e.g., stellar winds in astrophysics). It is also possible to compute MHD equilibria in rotating systems (e.g., rotating magnetospheres, rotating stellar coronae) by incorporating the centrifugal force. MHD equilibrium theory is useful for studying physical systems that slowly evolve in time. In this case, while one has an equilibrium at each time step, the configuration changes, often in response to temporal changes of the measured boundary conditions (e.g., the magnetic field of the Sun for modeling the corona) or of external sources (e.g., mass loading in planetary magnetospheres). Finally, MHD equilibria can be used as initial conditions for time-dependent MHD simulations. This article reviews the various analytical solutions and numerical techniques to compute MHD equilibria, as well as applications to the Sun, planetary magnetospheres, space, and laboratory plasmas.

Article

Magnetohydrodynamic Reconnection  

D. I. Pontin

Magnetic reconnection is a fundamental process that is important for the dynamical evolution of highly conducting plasmas throughout the Universe. In such highly conducting plasmas the magnetic topology is preserved as the plasma evolves, an idea encapsulated by Alfvén’s frozen flux theorem. In this context, “magnetic topology” is defined by the connectivity and linkage of magnetic field lines (streamlines of the magnetic induction) within the domain of interest, together with the connectivity of field lines between points on the domain boundary. The conservation of magnetic topology therefore implies that magnetic field lines cannot break or merge, but evolve only according to smooth deformations. In any real plasma the conductivity is finite, so that the magnetic topology is not preserved everywhere: magnetic reconnection is the process by which the field lines break and recombine, permitting a reconfiguration of the magnetic field. Due to the high conductivity, reconnection may occur only in small dissipation regions where the electric current density reaches extreme values. In many applications of interest, the change of magnetic topology facilitates a rapid conversion of stored magnetic energy into plasma thermal energy, bulk-kinetic energy, and energy of non-thermally accelerated particles. This energy conversion is associated with dynamic phenomena in plasmas throughout the Universe. Examples include flares and other energetic phenomena in the atmosphere of stars including the Sun, substorms in planetary magnetospheres, and disruptions that limit the magnetic confinement time of plasma in nuclear fusion devices. One of the major challenges in understanding reconnection is the extreme separation between the global system scale and the scale of the dissipation region within which the reconnection process itself takes place. Current understanding of reconnection has developed through mathematical and computational modeling as well as dedicated experiments in both the laboratory and space. Magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) reconnection is studied in the framework of magnetohydrodynamics, which is used to study plasmas (and liquid metals) in the continuum approximation.

Article

Solar Dynamo  

Robert Cameron

The solar dynamo is the action of flows inside the Sun to maintain its magnetic field against Ohmic decay. On small scales the magnetic field is seen at the solar surface as a ubiquitous “salt-and-pepper” disorganized field that may be generated directly by the turbulent convection. On large scales, the magnetic field is remarkably organized, with an 11-year activity cycle. During each cycle the field emerging in each hemisphere has a specific East–West alignment (known as Hale’s law) that alternates from cycle to cycle, and a statistical tendency for a North-South alignment (Joy’s law). The polar fields reverse sign during the period of maximum activity of each cycle. The relevant flows for the large-scale dynamo are those of convection, the bulk rotation of the Sun, and motions driven by magnetic fields, as well as flows produced by the interaction of these. Particularly important are the Sun’s large-scale differential rotation (for example, the equator rotates faster than the poles), and small-scale helical motions resulting from the Coriolis force acting on convective motions or on the motions associated with buoyantly rising magnetic flux. These two types of motions result in a magnetic cycle. In one phase of the cycle, differential rotation winds up a poloidal magnetic field to produce a toroidal field. Subsequently, helical motions are thought to bend the toroidal field to create new poloidal magnetic flux that reverses and replaces the poloidal field that was present at the start of the cycle. It is now clear that both small- and large-scale dynamo action are in principle possible, and the challenge is to understand which combination of flows and driving mechanisms are responsible for the time-dependent magnetic fields seen on the Sun.

Article

Solar Physics: Overview  

E.R. Priest

Solar physics is one of the liveliest branches of astrophysics at the current time, with many major advances that have been stimulated by observations from a series of space satellites and ground-based telescopes as well as theoretical models and sophisticated computational experiments. Studying the Sun is of key importance in physics for two principal reasons. Firstly, the Sun has major effects on the Earth and on its climate and space weather, as well as other planets of the solar system. Secondly, it represents a Rosetta stone, where fundamental astrophysical processes can be investigated in great detail. Yet, there are still major unanswered questions in solar physics, such as how the magnetic field is generated in the interior by dynamo action, how magnetic flux emerges through the solar surface and interacts with the overlying atmosphere, how the chromosphere and corona are heated, how the solar wind is accelerated, how coronal mass ejections are initiated and how energy is released in solar flares and high-energy particles are accelerated. Huge progress has been made on each of these topics since the year 2000, but there is as yet no definitive answer to any of them. When the answers to such puzzles are found, they will have huge implications for similar processes elsewhere in the cosmos but under different parameter regimes.

Article

Sunspots  

M. Rempel and J.M. Borrero

Sunspots are the most prominent manifestations of magnetic fields on the visible surface of the Sun (photosphere). While historic records mention sunspot observations by eye more than two thousand years ago, the physical nature of sunspots has been unraveled only in the past century starting with the pioneering work of Hale and Evershed. Sunspots are compact magnetic-field concentrations with a field strength exceeding 3,000 G in their center, a horizontal extent of about 30 Mm and typical lifetimes on the order of weeks. Research during the past few decades has focused on characterizing their stunning fine structure that became evident in high-resolution observations. The central part of sunspots (umbra) appears, at visible wavelengths, dark due to strongly suppressed convection (about 20% of the brightness of unperturbed solar granulation); the surrounding penumbra with a brightness of more than 75% of solar granulation shows efficient convective energy transport, while at the same time the constraining effects of magnetic field are visible in the filamentary fine structure of this region. The developments of the past 100 years have led to a deep understanding of the physical structure of sunspots. Key developments were the parallel advance of instrumentation; the advance in the interpretation of polarized light, leading to reliable inversions of physical parameters in the solar atmosphere; and the advance of modeling capabilities enabling radiation magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) simulations of the solar photosphere on the scale of entire sunspots. These developments turned sunspots into a unique plasma laboratory for studying the interaction of strong magnetic field with convection. The combination of refined observation and data analysis techniques provide detailed physical constraints, while numerical modeling has advanced to a level where a direct comparison with remote sensing observations through forward modeling of synthetic observations is now feasible. While substantial progress has been made in understanding the sunspot fine structure, fundamental questions regarding the formation of sunspots and sunspot penumbrae are still not answered.