Prof. Eugene Parker wins prestigious Crafoord Prize in Astronomy

Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences honors UChicago scientist’s pioneering work

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Jan. 30 that University of Chicago Prof. Emeritus Eugene Parker has been awarded the 2020 Crafoord Prize in Astronomy.

Awarded every three years, the prestigious Crafoord Prize consists of a gold medal and a sum of six million Swedish krona (about $600,000)—one of the largest prizes in science. 

The Academy, which is also responsible for selecting Nobel Prize winners, cited Parker for his “pioneering and fundamental studies of the solar wind and magnetic fields from stellar to galactic scales.”

Parker is widely known for his proposal of the solar wind, which radically changed scientists’ understanding of the solar system. He suggested, and spacecraft later confirmed, that the sun radiates an intense stream of charged particles that travel throughout the solar system at supersonic speeds. The discovery reshaped our view of space, stars and their surroundings, and it laid the foundations for a new field of astrophysics.

“I am humbled by the award of the Crafoord Prize,” said Parker, now 92. “It gives strong incentive for maintaining the historic high level of research that merits the prize.” 

The Crafoord Prize, which was awarded for the first time in 1982, promotes basic scientific research in mathematics and astronomy, geosciences, biosciences, and rheumatoid arthritis.

In 1958, Parker famously had to defend his idea against the most prominent scientists at the time; his first paper was rejected, and its reviewer suggested he “go to the library and read up on the subject” before writing a paper about it. Four years later, NASA spacecraft would confirm Parker’s “radical” theory. 

But the solar wind was only the first of Parker’s discoveries; he went on to study other space phenomena over more than 50 years of research, including cosmic rays and magnetic fields in galaxies and plasmas. His equations underpin much of our current understanding of not only our solar system, but all stars and galaxies.

The magnitude of his contributions prompted NASA to name its most ambitious mission to the sun after Parker as a tribute to his work. The Parker Solar Probe, which launched in 2018, became the first spacecraft named after a living person.

Parker also has received the National Medal of Science, the Kyoto Prize and the American Physical Society’s Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research, among others.

Asked for advice for those early in their careers, Parker said: “I have never made a significant proposal, but what there was a crowd who said, ‘Ain’t so, can’t possibly be.’ If you do something new or innovative, expect trouble. But think critically about it because if you’re wrong, you want to be the first one to know that.”

Parker and his family plan to travel to Sweden in May to accept the award from King Carl XVI Gustaf.