May 5, 2022
Anthony Mezzacappa discovered a passion for science in high school. That continued enthusiasm underlies his success as a teacher, researcher, and all-around university citizen—qualities that won him the university’s 2022 Alexander Prize.
A native New Yorker, Mezzacappa first learned about relativity when he was 16. That set him on a physics path that led to MIT (BS), Columbia University (MA), and the University of Texas, Austin (PhD). In 1996 he joined Oak Ridge National Laboratory, rising through the ranks as group leader to Corporate Fellow. His research is in neutrino and gravitational astrophysics with a particular interest in developing computational models of core-collapse supernovae—the violent, explosive death of massive stars.
As he told a group of high school students in December, its important to understand these cosmic events and the universe we live in, because "we're made of the same stuff. We're 65 percent oxygen," and that oxygen comes from the death of massive stars.
Mezzacappa has played a prominent role in organizing the U.S. supernova community, bringing together astrophysicists and computer scientists. His leadership has helped make the UT-ORNL astrophysics group one of a handful that can perform sophisticated simulations of a nascent star's kilometer-scale hydrodynamics up to its explosive demise. He's also involved with the Laser Interferometric Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), where he's leading the Supernova Multi-messenger Consortium. After LIGO's historic success detecting gravitational waves from black hole mergers, the next chapter will be using that science to detect supernova signatures. The consortium will help develop computational models to guide those efforts.
While he's had adjunct and research appointments with UT Physics since 1994, Mezzacappa joined the faculty full-time in 2012 as the Newton W. and Wilma C. Thomas Endowed Chair in Theoretical and Computational Astrophysics. (For seven years he did double duty as the director of the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Computational Sciences.) It's his role as professor that allows Mezzacappa to share his love for science with a new generation. He took the challenging concepts of quantum mechanics and put together a course that consistently earned outstanding student evaluation scores. (The UT Society of Physics Students voted him Teacher of the Year in 2014.)
Mezzacappa's enthusiasm for teaching doesn't stop on UT's campus. His work as a parent volunteer at West High School became the starting point for the West High School & L&N STEM Academy. He's recruited 10 other physics faculty to visit area high school science classes and talk about the fundamentals and the future of physics.
The Alexander Prize is named for former UT president and Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander and his wife, Honey, to honor a faculty member who is "an exceptional undergraduate teacher whose scholarship is also distinguished."
This is the second Alexander Prize for UT Physics in six years. Professor Geoff Greene won the honor in 2016.