May 6, 2019
Alexei Khokhlov, professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, died on May 4. He was 65.
During a career at the University of Chicago that spanned thirteen years, Khokhlov focused on understanding thermonuclear-powered supernovae—white dwarf explosions so bright they can be measured at great distances. Astronomers use these explosions not only to measure distances but also to determine cosmological parameters of the universe, including the rate of expansion and the properties of dark matter.
Khokhlov was especially interested in the turbulent nuclear flame front of these stars and created an elegant model to explain this physical process.
"He was a valued colleague and created among the very first three-dimensional computer simulations of thermonuclear-powered supernovae using powerful supercomputers," said Donald Lamb, the Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. "It was an achievement that significantly increased our understanding of these spectacular events."
According to Lamb, Khokhlov also conducted a multi-year campaign of supercomputer simulations that explored the way an ordinary flame can spontaneously become a burning supersonic shock—a process that may play a key role in thermonuclear-powered supernovae.
Khokhlov was born in Moscow and spent his childhood at the Crimea observatory where his parents—physicists Vera Khokhlova and Moissey Khokhlov—worked. He graduated from Moscow State University and earned his doctorate in physics and mathematics from the Institute of Space Research in Moscow in 1983. Before joining the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UChicago, Khokhlov worked for what is now called the Institute of Astronomy at the Russian Academy of Sciences, was a Visiting Fellow at the Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics, and served as a research scientist at the University of Texas-Austin's Astronomy Department and the Naval Research Laboratory.
J. Craig Wheeler, the Samuel T. and Fern Yanagisawa Regents Professor of Astronomy at the University of Texas-Austin, remembered Khokhlov as a bright and deep thinker. "He understood physics so fundamentally and always kept that at the forefront of his work," Wheeler said. "He was able to tackle turbulence—a very complicated problem in our field—and tease out incredible insights."
"We would talk for hours not only about science, but also about Alexei's favorite books," said Vasileios Paschalidis, assistant professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Arizona and Khokhlov's former Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago.
According to Paschalidis, Khokhlov was a fan of science fiction as well. "Whenever we would stumble on a nice idea or discovery he would use Star Trek's catch phrase 'Engage' to encourage me to pursue the idea," Paschalidis said. "Alexei would also give me advice about life, and eventually we were so close that I considered him the father I never had on this side of the Atlantic ocean."
Khokhlov is survived by his wife, Almadena Chtchelkanova, and children.