“All I can say is wow, here we go,” said Parker, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics at UChicago. “[Now I] really have to turn from biting my nails … to thinking about all the interesting things which I don’t know yet. We’re in for some learning the next several years.”
The probe will investigate the mysterious workings of the sun and the solar wind that Parker proposed decades ago.
“Eugene Parker had a vision of the solar system that was way ahead of its time,” said Prof. Angela Olinto, dean of the physical sciences at UChicago. “His work basically laid the foundation of a whole new field, and he serves as an inspiration to all of us here at the University of Chicago who are working to expand the boundaries of human knowledge.”
A far-out idea
Parker was a young UChicago assistant professor when he began looking into an open question in astrophysics at the time: whether there were particles coming off the sun. It seemed unlikely, since Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t flow out into space, and presumably the same would be true for the sun. But scientists had noticed an odd phenomenon: The tails of comets, no matter which direction they traveled, always pointed away from the sun—almost as though something was blowing them away.
Parker sat down and began to do the math. He calculated that if the sun’s corona was a million degrees, there had to be a flow of particles expanding away from its surface, eventually becoming extremely fast—faster than the speed of sound. The idea was unheard of at the time, but that’s what the physics was telling Parker.
“And that’s the end of the story, except it isn’t, because people immediately said, ‘I don’t believe it,’” Parker said.