Fred Lawrence Whipple

By Gingerich, Owen | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Fred Lawrence Whipple


Gingerich, Owen, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


5 NOVEMBER 1906 * 30 AUGUST 2004

FRED LAWRENCE WHIPPLE, internationally known for his "dirty snowball" model of comets, was the man in large part responsible for bringing the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to an academic educational institution. He thereby laid the foundation for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which has become the world's largest astronomical establishment.

Soon after his birth into a farming family in Red Oak, in the southwestern corner of Iowa, on 5 November 1906, Whipple and his parents followed many Hawkeyes to California, where he eventually enrolled first at Occidental College and then at UCLA to pursue his interest in mathematics. A mild bout of childhood polio dashed his early dreams of becoming a professional tennis player. In graduate work at Berkeley he became skilled in celestial mechanics and in 1930, with a fellow graduate student, he was the first to compute an orbit for the newly discovered planet Pluto. Although handicapped by the lack of observations from Lowell Observatory, where the object had been discovered, they nevertheless acquired an arc of nineteen days, and in retrospect their orbit proved to be far more reliable than one released a week later by the Lowell Observatory and based on a span of fifty-nine days.

Soon thereafter, in 1931, Whipple came to Harvard Observatory to assist in the observing program, but with the unexpected death of the veteran staff observer, the Phillips Professor Edward S. King, he suddenly became the head of the program. This involved setting up the new Oak Ridge observing station twenty-six miles to the west of lightpolluted Cambridge, and installing the new 61 -inch reflector. The following year he was also appointed instructor in the astronomy graduate program then recently organized by Harlow Shapley. In 1938 he became lecturer in astronomy, in 1945 associate professor, in 1950 professor oí astronomy and chairman of the astronomy department, and from 1968 the Phillips Professor of Practical Astronomy.

As a skilled orbit computer, Whipple was particularly interested in meteors and comets, and he took it upon himself to examine carefully every new plate in the observatory's rapidly expanding collection of astronomical photographs. By inspecting plates roughly equivalent in area to a city block, he sometimes declared, you could be pretty sure to discover a comet. His attention to details netted him six new comets between 1932 and 1942. In 1936 he established an improved system of telescopic cameras to photograph meteors simultaneously from the headquarters in Cambridge and from the Oak Ridge Observatory. By triangulation he could establish not only the heights and speeds of the meteors, but their spatial orbits as well, finding that all of them originated from within the solar system, contrary to some vociferously expressed views at the time, and pointing to the concept that the solar system was far larger than previously supposed.

In June 1942 a veritable black hole occurred in Whipple's trajectory, unmentionable in this context except for his complete recovery and his exceptional career path thereafter. Overworked and overwrought, perhaps with personal problems deepened by the divorce from his first wife in 1935, he had been encouraged to take a break and attend a spectroscopy conference in Chicago. But when it came time for his paper, he was missing. Eventually he was found in a near-catatonic stupor, and was rushed to a hospital. For more than two months he remained in a sanatorium in Wisconsin, undergoing repeated shock therapy. His doctor reported that his symptoms were "simply nature's way of enforcing a rest."

A few months after returning to Harvard, by then fully recovered, he took wartime leave from astronomy to join Harvard's Radio Research Laboratory, working on radar countermeasures; in January 1944 he went overseas to help introduce new technology. He regarded his wartime experience as seminal training for work within a governmental or military structure, and his research area paved the way for his use of radar in detecting meteors both by day and by night. …

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