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Professor Leading International Expert On Magnetic Reconnection Theory

By Dave Moore, ECS
December 16, 2009

Terry Forbes, Research Professor of Astrophysics, Solar-Terrestrial Physics. Perry smith, Photo Services

Note: This is one in a series of profiles of 2009 Faculty Excellence Award recipients.

When Terry Forbes was a kid growing up in the Midwest, he wanted to be either a singer or an astronomer. He bought his first telescope off the back of a cereal box and each day after school, where he sang in the chorus, he explored the constellations.

When he was 12, his voice changed, and that narrowed his career choice. In high school, he fashioned his own six-inch telescope and joined the astronomy club. “I had a physics teacher in high school who would admit to not knowing the answers to all the questions. That inspired me,” says Forbes. Today, Forbes belongs to the ultimate astronomy club for grown-ups: the Space Science Center, housed within UNH’s renowned Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space.

Fueled by grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Forbes has earned a reputation as a leading international expert on magnetic reconnection theory, which explains the behavior of solar events called coronal mass ejections (CME). CMEs are eruptions of huge bubbles of solar plasma—as much as 10 billion tons—that explode outward from the Sun at up to a million miles per hour over as much as 30 million square miles.

Forbes’ theory, supported by data collected through international research efforts such as the X-Ray Telescope, suggests the eruptions occur through pressure exerted on the Sun’s surface by concentric waves of magnetic fields. CMEs stretch and break the magnetic fields, which then “reconnect.”

The whole awesome mayhem reaches us distantly on earth as the shimmering beauty of the aurora borealis and other electro-magnetic phenomena comprising the Sun-Earth connection. So influential is Forbes’ theory, which can predict where and when CMEs will occur, that space scientists design their satellite instrumentation to protect against these events.

“We all go to him for his encyclopedic knowledge, which he shares generously,” says Amitava Bhattacharjee, the Peter T. Paul professor of physics at UNH. “His impact on solar physics has been felt the world over.”


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