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Spartan Profiles: Eugene Parker

  • Author:
    Robert Bao
  • Published:
    Fall 2003


            Just as physics and astronomy were dramatically altered by Newton and Galileo, space science has been altered by the extraordinary vision of one physicist—Eugene N. Parker, ’48, professor emeritus of the University of Chicago and winner of the 2003 Kyoto Prize (a 20-karat gold medal plus some $400,000 in cash).  “I’m exhilarated,” says Parker from his home in Homewood, IL.  “It certainly brightens an otherwise dull retirement.” 

             In 1958, he theorized the existence of a “solar wind” in the solar space, which scientists believed was a hard vacuum. “This upset all the experts,” recalls Gene.  “I sent it for publication and two referees said it was wrong, although they did not refute my calculations.  Fortunately, Chandrasekar was a courageous editor and he went ahead and published it (in The Astrophysical Journal)."

             By 1962, Eugene’s theory was proven through direct satellite observation, triggering a drastic change in space science and an entire new set of explanations of phenomena involving fixed stars, the interstellar medium and the galaxy.  His book Cosmical Magnetic Fields—Their Origin and Activity (1979) has become the Bible of this new discipline and is quoted authoritatively to this day.  “Any significant discovery is invariably blasted by eminent referees,” he says.  “It’s a real problem.  If you write an ordinary paper, where you make some simple calculations, they won’t bother to attack you.”  Having written more than 300 papers, Gene says the solution is to force them “to prove that you’re wrong.” 

            A native of Detroit, Gene chose MSU after winning the Alumni Distinguished Scholarship.  “I felt like the luckiest guy in the world,” he recalls.  “And MSU did not disappoint.  While they were not known for research at the time, MSU had many professors who were competent physicists and very competent teachers—like Drs. Osgood, Haus, Dwight and Kikuchi.  I got a real good education.  It prepared me well for my career.”