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UW-Madison professor James Lawler awarded national Astrophysics Prize

In an interview with the Daily Cardinal, Professor James Lawler explained the uses of equipment housed in his lab.

Image By: Morgan Winston and Morgan Winston

Hidden in the maze of Chamberlin Hall, a series of odd contraptions are found in Professor James Lawler’s labs.

A machine with big tubes and a fluctuating meter makes a continuous humming sound and appears to be from a science fiction novel. Lawler just politely smiles and says it is operated by an undergraduate student.

Following years of dedication to his students, Lawler, a professor of physics at UW-Madison, was awarded with the 2017 Laboratory Astrophysics Prize by the American Astronomical Society.

The Laboratory Astrophysics Division of ASS annually honors a person whom “has made significant contributions to laboratory astrophysics over an extended period of time.”

“It’s recognition outside of physics which is really nice The lasting significance is surely in astrophysics,” said Lawler.

The award recognizes decades of research that began before Lawler became a faculty member at UW-Madison in 1980. His range of interests include physics of gas discharges, laser spectroscopy and laboratory astrophysics.

In the 1980s, Lawler and his team worked to make spectroscopy, the study of light and matter interaction, more quantitative with astrophysics experiments.

“In astrophysics, an astronomer might see a spectral line and from the wavelength, from the color, they can tell immediately what atom or ion they are looking at,” said Lawler. “But to say how much, to get into the detailed physics and chemistry, you need to know something besides the wavelength.”

According to the professor, an astronomer must also know the atomic transition probability. His team developed the techniques and technologies needed to measure this efficiently and in a cost-efficient way.

“It is through spectroscopy that we get the details on physics and chemistry of the remote universe,” said Lawler. “Things are so far away and you can think about sending probes throughout the solar system. NASA has done quite a bit of that, but to leave the solar system and actually visit another star and planets around that star isn’t possible yet.”

Lawler received his doctorate at UW-Madison and cites the pool of good graduate students as his main reason for coming back.

“It’s part of your legacy, your students. You want them to be successful, too. It reflects positively on the major professor when they’re successful,” said Lawler. “Wisconsin was a wonderful place to spend my career.”

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