[meteorite-list] Fred Whipple, World-Renowned Harvard and Smithsonian Astronomer, Dies
From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Tue Aug 31 20:53:16 2004
Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Release No.: 04-28
For Release: Tuesday, August 31, 2004
Note to Editors: High-resolution photographs of Fred Whipple are online
Fred Whipple, World-Renowned Harvard and Smithsonian Astronomer, Dies
Cambridge, MA -Dr. Fred Lawrence Whipple, the oldest living American
astronomer and one of the last giants of 20th century astronomy, passed
away yesterday at the age of 97 following a prolonged illness. He was
Phillips Professor of Astronomy Emeritus at Harvard University and a
Senior Physicist at SAO.
"Fred Whipple was one of those rare individuals who affected our lives
in many ways. He predicted the coming age of satellites, he
revolutionized the study of comets and as Director of the Smithsonian
Astrophysical Observatory, he helped form the Harvard-Smithsonian Center
for Astrophysics," says Charles Alcock, current Director of the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
A discoverer of six comets, Whipple may be best known for his comet
research. Five decades ago, he first suggested that comets were "icy
conglomerates," what the press called "dirty snowballs." His dirty
snowball theory caught the imagination of the public even as it
revolutionized comet science.
Whipple's change of concept from the generally accepted "flying
sandbank" model was "one of the most important contributions to solar
system studies in the 20th century," says Dr. Brian Marsden, director of
the Minor Planet Center located at SAO. "I think many people would agree
that that was a really shining moment in his scientific career." A 2003
survey by The Astrophysical Journal showed that Whipple's 1950 and 1951
scientific papers on the "icy conglomerate" model were the most cited
papers in past 50 years.
Whipple's comet work continued for a lifetime. In 1999, he was named to
work on NASA's Contour mission, becoming the oldest researcher ever to
accept such a post.
Never one to limit his work to one area of research, Whipple also
contributed to more earthly challenges. During World War II, Whipple
co-invented a cutting device that converted lumps of tinfoil into
thousands of fragments known as chaff. Allied aircraft would release
chaff to confuse enemy radar. Whipple was particularly proud of this
invention, for which President Truman awarded him a Certificate of Merit
Whipple also strongly influenced the early era of spaceflight. Mindful
of the damage to spacecraft from meteors, in 1946 he invented the Meteor
Bumper, a thin outer skin of metal. Also known as the Whipple Shield,
this mechanism explodes a meteor on contact, preventing the spacecraft
from receiving catastrophic damage. Improved versions of it are still in
Whipple and a handful of other scientists had the foresight to envision
the era of artificial satellites. Only Whipple had both the imagination
and the managerial skill to organize a worldwide network of amateur
astronomers to track these then hypothetical objects and to determine
their orbits. When Sputnik I was successfully launched on 4 October
1957, Whipple's group was the only one prepared. Cambridge fast became a
nerve center of the earliest part of the space age. Whipple and some of
his staff were even featured on the cover of Life magazine for their
satellite tracking prowess.
Later, also under his leadership, SAO developed an optical tracking
system for satellites using a network of Baker-Nunn cameras. That
network achieved spectacular success. "It tracked satellites so well
that astronomers were able to determine the exact shape of the Earth
from its gravitational effects on satellite orbits," says Dr. Myron
Lecar of SAO.
For his work on the network, Whipple received from President John F.
Kennedy in 1963 the Distinguished Federal Civilian Service award. "I
think that was my most exciting moment, when I was able to invite my
parents and my family to the Rose Garden for the award ceremony,"
Whipple said in a 2001 interview.
Born in Red Oak, Iowa, on November 5, 1906, Whipple studied at
Occidental College and earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics at
the University of California at Los Angeles, prior to moving to Berkeley
to obtain his Ph.D. degree in 1931. He then moved to Harvard College
Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Whipple directed the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) from
1955 to 1973, before it joined with the Harvard College Observatory to
form the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
"Fred Whipple was a truly extraordinary person among extraordinary
people. He was gifted with great scientific imagination, superb
analytical skills, and excellent management acumen," says Dr. Irwin
Shapiro, who served as CfA director from 1983 to 2004.
In the late 1960s, Whipple selected Mount Hopkins in southern Arizona as
the site for a new SAO astronomical facility. Whipple was part of the
group that initiated a novel and low-cost approach to building large
telescopes first realized in the construction of the Multiple Mirror
Telescope, a joint project of SAO and the University of Arizona. Mt.
Hopkins Observatory was renamed Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in 1981.
Dr. George Field, the first CfA director, says of Whipple, "He will be
remembered by a generation of scientists for his leadership and for his
keen insight. He was admired by his friends and colleagues for his
integrity, and for doggedly pursuing his research into his nineties."
In 1946 Whipple married Babette F. Samelson, by whom he had two
daughters, Sandra and Laura. He also had a son, Earle Raymond, by his
Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for
Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian
Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA
scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin,
evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.
For more information, contact:
David Aguilar, Director of Public Affairs
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Phone: 617-495-7462 Fax: 617-495-7468
Public Affairs Specialist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Phone: 617-495-7463, Fax: 617-495-7016
Received on Tue 31 Aug 2004 08:53:11 PM PDT