Whipple, Fred L. (Fred Lawrence), 1906-2004

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1906-11-05
Death 2004-08-30
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

Fred Lawrence Whipple was an astronomer, and was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1956.

From the description of Correspondence, 1965-1975. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122579023

From the guide to the Fred Lawrence Whipple correspondence, 1965-1975, 1965-1975, (American Philosophical Society)

Fred Lawrence Whipple (1906- ), an astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), was noted for his research and methodological innovations in studying the moon, meteors, and comets. The University of California, Los Angeles awarded him the B.A. in 1927 and the University of California, Berkeley the Ph.D. in 1931. After teaching at Stanford University in 1929, he joined the Harvard College Observatory staff in 1931. In 1955 he was appointed Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During his tenure, he established the Satellite Tracking Program (STP) which pioneered optical tracking systems utilized in geodesy and geophysics; oversaw SAO's research program in stellar interiors, upper atmosphere, meteorite, celestial mechanics, and geodesy studies; and its participation in Project Celescope. Whipple selected and developed an astronomical facility at Mount Hopkins, Arizona, named the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in 1981. Now SAO's principal observation site, the facility houses the Multiple-Mirror Telescope (MMT), an innovative, low cost telescope planned by Whipple and two colleagues. After his retirement in 1973, he continued comet and meteor studies as Senior Scientist at SAO.

From the description of Oral history interviews with Fred Lawrence Whipple, 1976. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 78343040

Fred Lawrence Whipple, Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University (1950-1977) and former Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (1955-1973), is a world renowned expert on comets. His theory on the nature of cometary nuclei revolutionized and advanced the science of astronomy and astrophysics. Whipple has published over 200 papers and books, writing on such diverse topics as comet and asteroid orbits, variable stars, novae and supernovae, the nature of galaxies, planetary nebulae, the earth's upper atmosphere, and solar system evolution.

From the description of Papers of Fred Lawrence Whipple, 1929-1997. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 77068239

Astronomer. Appointed Chairman of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) when it moved to Cambridge, MA in 1955. Major SAO projects under his direction included the Satellite Tracking Program, Project Celescope, the Radio Meteor Project, and the Meteorite Photography and Recovery Project, also known as the Prairie Network. In the late 1960s, Whipple selected Mount Hopkins, AZ as the site for a new SAO astronomical facility, renamed Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in 1981. He is internationally recognized for his research on the moon, meteors, and comets. In 1975, the minor planet number 1940 was named "Whipple" in recognition of his contributions to astronomy.

From the description of Oral history interview with Fred Lawrence Whipple, 1977 29 April. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 78154329

Fred Lawrence Whipple (1906- ), an astronomer, received the B.A. from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1927, and the Ph. D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1931. In 1932, he joined the staff of Harvard University as an Instructor of Astronomy. By 1950, Whipple had become Professor and Chairman of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard. Whipple was appointed Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) when it moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1955. Since his retirement in 1973, Whipple has continued his research as a Senior Scientist at SAO.

During his tenure as Director, Whipple oversaw SAO research programs in stellar interiors, the upper atmosphere, meteorites, celestial mechanics, and geodesy studies. Major SAO projects under his direction included the Satellite Tracking Program, Project Celescope, the Radio Meteor Project, and the Meteorite Photography and Recovery Project, also known as the Prairie Network. In the late 1960s, Whipple selected Mount Hopkins, Arizona, as the site for a new SAO astronomical facility. Renamed the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in 1981, the facility houses the Multiple-Mirror Telescope (MMT), an innovative, low-cost telescope planned by Whipple and two colleagues.

Whipple is internationally recognized for his research on the moon, meteors, and comets. He has conducted pioneering research in photographically measuring the speeds and decelerations of meteors, computing the orbits of comets and asteroids, and describing the structure of comets. He is the author of more than 150 scientific books and papers; has served as editor of several publications; and has been a member and officer in numerous professional organizations. In 1975, the minor planet no. 1940 was named WHIPPLE in recognition of his contributions to astronomy.

From the description of Fred Lawrence Whipple Papers, circa 1927-1983. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 78228388

Fred Lawrence Whipple (1906-2004), Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University (1945-1977) is a world-renowned expert on comets. His theory on the nature of cometary nuclei published in 1950 revolutionized and advanced the science of astronomy and astrophysics. Whipple has published over 200 papers and books and has written on such diverse topics as comet and asteroid orbits, variable stars, novae and supernovae, the nature of galaxies, planetary nebulae, the earth's upper atmosphere, and solar system evolution.

Whipple was born on November 5, 1906 in Red Oak, Iowa to Henry Lawrence and Celestia (MacFarland) Whipple. The Whipples were farmers, and Fred shared the responsibility of attending to the family farm while going to school. In 1921 Whipple's father moved the family to California and opened a grocery store where Fred worked part-time.

After graduating from Long Beach High School (1923), Whipple spent one year at Occidental College (1923-1924) before moving on to the University of California at Los Angles. Here he majored in mathematics and graduated in 1927. Concluding that mathematics was too boring and excited by the possibilities of astronomy, Whipple changed fields and in 1931 he obtained his Doctor of Philosophy in astronomy from the University of California at Berkeley. During this early period of study, Whipple used logarithms as mathematical tools to determine the future course of comets based on their observed positions in the past. He also began his study of variable stars and constellations and helped calculate the orbit of the newly discovered planet of Pluto.

Whipple's long association with Harvard University began in 1931 when he became the program director for the Harvard College Observatory. Under his direction, the Observatory developed the use of double station photography to study the precise velocity and deceleration of meteors. These studies led Whipple to conclude that meteors consisted of the loose fragile material that came from comets and that meteors did not originate beyond our solar system. Whipple established his leadership role in the scientific community during the 1930s after he personally scanned 70,000 sky-survey photographic plates with an hand magnifier and discovered six new comets. For his efforts he was awarded several Donohue medals. In 1932 Whipple was appointed an instructor in astronomy at Harvard and a lecturer in 1938.

During World War II, Whipple worked for the Harvard Radio Research Laboratories (1942-1945) and directed the development of confusion reflectors that were designed to disrupt German radar. These reflectors were small pieces of aluminum foil that, when dropped from Allied planes, simulated a multitude of aircraft. For his work on this project, Whipple received a Presidential Certificate of Merit in 1948. After the war, Whipple returned to the Observatory. In 1945 he was appointed an Associate Professor and finally, Phillips Professor of Astronomy in 1968.

Whipple became an active leader in upper-atmospheric research using meteor photography during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He photographed meteors simultaneously from a telescope camera in Cambridge and from one at Oak Ridge Observatory in Harvard, Massachusetts; between the two there is a distance of twenty-four miles (1944). In 1946 he helped develop plans to launch iron missiles from V2 rockets to determine the size of meteors. The flights would be photographed by Harvard's aerial cameras and calculations made from photographic plates. In 1951 the Observatory acquired new cameras capable of photographing forty times as many meteors and capturing the nature of the upper atmosphere, enhancing rocket experiments. His use of meteor photography helped Whipple develop a comet model that described the physical and genetic relationship of comet and meteor streams. Always interested in space travel, Whipple invented the Whipple Shield or meteor bumper for space craft in 1946. This shield was really a thin outer skin that could explode a meteor on contact so that the real skin of a space craft would not puncture. Whipple's shield was improved upon and was used by later space craft.

In 1950 Whipple wrote his seminal paper on the nature of comet nuclei. His viewpoint on the origin and physical nature of comets received broad acceptance and further enhanced his standing in the scientific community. In his paper, Whipple discussed the physical composition of comets and the nature of comet orbits. He argued that, in the cold darkness of space, comets were similar to frozen ice balls consisting of frozen water, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide and dust. Whipple wrote that when a comet approaches the sun, the solar rays heat up the ice and release the frozen water as a volatile gas that explodes and moves the comet in different directions and at different speeds. Later studies showed that the sweeping tails observed on comets were actually the exploding gases that Whipple described. Whipple studied sixty orbits to confirm his landmark theory and demonstrated that the motions of comets were altered by non-gravitational forces.

In 1955 Whipple was appointed the director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), a position he held until 1973. During his tenure as director, the SAO became a pioneer and leader in space research. Whipple supervised the move of the SAO from Washington, D.C. to Cambridge and expanded its staff, facilities, and scientific scope. Under Whipple's guidance, sixty scientists engaged in the study of stellar interiors, the upper atmosphere, meteorites, celestial mechanics, and geodesy. In 1957 Whipple proposed and helped organize Project Moonwatch, an international program for tracking satellites. By 1959 there were over 200 teams of observers active in many parts of the world. This network, which continued to track satellites until the mid-1970s, sent its findings to the observatory for analysis and became a precursor to the Global Positioning System now used to make geodetic positioning available to anyone. For his leadership and service in creating a worldwide network to track orbiting satellites, Whipple received the American Astronautical Society's Space Flight Award in 1960 and the Distinguished Federal Civilian Award from President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

In 1973 the ties between the Smithsonian and Harvard were strengthened by the creation of the joint Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In the same year, Whipple retired from the SAO and became a senior research scientist for the Center. Although Whipple retired from Harvard in 1977, he continued as a leader in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics. In recognition of his contributions, in 1982 the Smithsonian Institution's observatory at Mount Hopkins, Arizona was renamed the Fred Whipple Observatory. In 1986, Whipple's initial theory about the nature of comets, which he developed in 1950, was confirmed when Halley's comet returned to our solar system and was observed by telescopes, cameras, high-flying aircraft, and satellites. Furthermore, in 1999, at the age of 92, and as the preeminent comet expert, Whipple joined the science team of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's unmanned space craft Comet Nucleus Tour mission. This mission, continuing the research that Whipple pioneered in almost fifty years before, sent a robotic satellite into space to take images and comparative spectral maps of cometary nuclei and to analyze the dust and gas flowing from them.

Whipple is best known for his work advancing the understanding and nature of comets and meteors. His findings dramatically influenced astronomy and astrophysics. In recognition of his contributions, minor planet number 1940 was named after him in 1975. In 1971 he received the Kepler Medal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a Career Service Award from the National Civil Service League in 1972 for sustained excellence. The Royal Astronomical Society recognized his research and leadership in 1983 by presenting Whipple with a gold medal. In 1997 the University of California presented him with the universities highest honor, the UCLA Medal, for his forethought and insight in the science of astronomy. Finally, the Library of Congress named Whipple as a Living Legend in April 2000 for exemplifying the American ideals of individual creativity, conviction, dedication, and exuberance.

Fred Lawrence Whipple was married to Dorothy Woods in 1927. They had one son, Earle Raymond, and were divorced in 1935. Whipple remarried in 1946 to Babette Francis Samelson and had two daughters, Dorothy Sandra and Laura.

Fred Lawrence Whipple. (1952) In Current Biography. Retrieved from H.W. Wilson database (Wilson Biographies Plus) on the World Wide Web: http://80-vnweb.hwwilsonweb.com.expl.harvard.edu [26 November 2002] Levy, David H. Dr. Comet at 95. Sky and Telescope, 2002 January, 89-90. Raymond E. Bullock. Fred Lawrence Whipple. Volume 4 of Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists. New York: Gale Research Inc., 1995. Whipple, Fred L.Of Comets and Meteors. Science, 4 August 2000, 728.

From the guide to the Papers of Fred Lawrence Whipple, 1929-1997, (Harvard University Archives)

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Subjects:

  • Astronomy and astrophysics
  • Meteors--Research
  • Comets--Research
  • World War, 1939-1945
  • Asteroids--Research
  • Planets--Research
  • Astronomy
  • Satellites--Research
  • Astrophysics
  • Astronomers
  • Astrophysics--Research
  • Astronomy--Research
  • Astronomy--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Space sciences--Research

Occupations:

  • Astronomers--Interviews

Places:

  • Massachusetts--Cambridge (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)