Theoretical Astrophysics & Plasma Physics
Research in theoretical astrophysics at Oxford is split between the Rudolf Peierls Centre for Theoretical Physics, and the Astrophysics sub-department. In the Peierls Centre we focus on collisionless kinetic systems: galaxies and plasmas.
We are heavily involved in using dynamical models to extract science from the huge surveys of our Galaxy that are currently being undertaken from the ground and from 2014 will be continued from space by the Gaia satellite. We are involved with two spectroscopic surveys, RAdialVelocityExperiment and the ESO-Gaia survey. The goals of this work are to map the distribution of dark matter in our Galaxy, and to understand how our Galaxy works as a machine, and how it evolved to its current configuration. Another area of work is the dynamics of the central regions of galaxies, which are dominated by massive black holes and provide the principal means by which we determine the masses of these holes.
On the plasma side our goal is to able to predict the large-scale dynamics of magnetised plasmas. This ability is vital for studies of both astrophysical and laboratory plasmas. Most of the baryonic (i.e. ordinary) matter in the Universe is contained in the magnetised plasmas that make up stars, the interstellar and intergalactic media. In the long run mankind's major energy source is likely to be fusion of hydrogen to helium in a magnetically confined plasma. In a magnetised plasma the motions of individual particles are dominated by the magnetic field and it is a huge challenge to infer from their microscopic motions the macroscopic characteristics of the plasma that are analogous to the familiar principles of fluid flow: pressure, viscosity, etc. We have close links with the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy.