Award honors Prof. Eugene Parker’s lifetime of physics research

Prof. Emeritus Eugene Parker’s ideas were once widely questioned in the physics world. This week, he will receive one of the field’s highest honors.

Parker will receive the American Physical Society’s Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research at a Feb. 1 ceremony in Washington, D.C. The medal citation notes Parker’s “fundamental contributions to space physics, plasma physics, solar physics and astrophysics for over 60 years.”

“I’ve been a member of the APS since 1952, so this is a nice honor,” said Parker, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics at the University of Chicago. “I’m very pleased, particularly since people were skeptical about these concepts for a long time.”

Early in his career Parker proposed a theory that faced widespread skepticism—notably that a “solar wind” was carrying charged particles from the surface of the sun to the far reaches of the solar system. Beginning with the Mariner II space probe to Venus in 1962, however, measurements from spacecraft began to validate his predictions.

In addition to the solar wind, he has investigated magnetic fields, including the role played by cosmic rays in Milky Way magnetic fields and how cyclonic turbulence generates magnetic fields.

“Gene Parker has a wonderful and exceptional record of seminal contributions to solar, space and astrophysics over the many years of his distinguished career,” said Roger Falcone, chair of the 2018 APS Medal selection committee. “It is remarkable to see so many effects that bear his name.”

It’s been an eventful year for Parker, whom NASA honored in May 2017 by naming its first mission to send a spacecraft through the sun’s corona after the professor. The Parker Solar Probe, which recently embarked on its thermal testing phase to be frozen and then blasted with heat to simulate conditions on its journey, is scheduled to launch in July 2018. It is the first spacecraft to be named after a living person.

Scientists are eager to explore the surface of the sun, especially as flares, winds and ejections from the sun can affect electronics and infrastructure here on Earth.

Parker said he plans to travel to witness the probe’s launch this summer. He’s looking forward to it; he’s never seen a rocket launch. “I imagine it’s like the Taj Mahal,” he said. “Everyone’s seen a picture of it, but to see it in person is a completely different story.”