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Visionary Scientist Eugene Parker Dies at 94: Name Is ‘Written in’ the Sun

Eugene Parker at his home.

John Zich/University of Chicago

Eugene N. Parker, the celebrated astrophysicist who was so central to our understanding of the Sun that NASA named its star-flying Parker Solar Probe after him, died Tuesday at the age of 94.

“I don’t think it’s in any way an exaggeration to say that the field of heliophysics has flourished today primarily because of the work of Dr. Eugene Parker exists.” said Nicky Fox, Parker’s friend and director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, in a statement. “Although Dr. Parker is no longer with us, his discoveries and legacy will live on forever.”

Born in Michigan in 1927, Parker attended Michigan State University and CalTech to earn degrees in physics and spent some time early in his career at the University of Utah before ending up at the University of Chicago in 1955. He spent the rest of his career there.

There he also produced a seminal paper in which he proposed the existence of the solar wind, a constant ejection of particles from the sun. Parker’s contemporaries criticized and even derided this notion.

“The newspaper’s first reviewer said, ‘Well, I would suggest that Parker go to the library and read up on the subject before attempting to write a paper on it, because that’s utter nonsense,'” Parker said UChicago News in 2018.

But Parker’s calculations were sound, and within a few years, NASA’s Mariner II mission to Venus in 1962 would be directly impacting the solar wind.

Today, the solar wind is understood as a fundamental phenomenon in our solar system, affecting everything from the magnetic fields of the planets to the rotation and trajectories of asteroids and spacecraft. It’s even believed that the solar wind played a major role in removing the Martian atmosphere, turning it from a once wetter world into the cold, red, dead, desert planet we know.

In a career that spanned seven decades, Parker also studied cosmic rays, magnetic fields throughout the universe, and more. A number of concepts bear his name, including the Parker instability associated with magnetic fields in galaxies and the Sweet Parker model Magnetic fields in plasmas.

But Parker’s most famous honor is being the first person to witness the launch of a spacecraft that bears his name. The scientist was present at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on August 12, 2018, when a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket lifted him from Earth.

Parker’s son Eric said he was “deeply moved” by the experience.


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For the past three and a half years, the Parker Solar Probe has flown around the Sun and the inner Solar System. Last April, the Spacecraft actually crossed into the corona our local star, a nightmarish area where temperatures can reach 3 million degrees Fahrenheit, and survived.

“Parker Solar Probe ‘touches the sun’ is a fitting achievement for its eponymous mission,” said Thomas ZurbuchenAssociate Administrator for Science at NASA.

“Gene Parker was a legendary figure in our field — his vision of the sun and solar system was way ahead of his time,” said Angela Olinto, dean of the Department of Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago. “It is only fitting that Gene’s name is literally written in our star, the Sun, and in the physics that describe stars.”

Visionary Scientist Eugene Parker Dies at 94: Name Is ‘Written in’ the Sun Source link Visionary Scientist Eugene Parker Dies at 94: Name Is ‘Written in’ the Sun

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