Whipple, Fred L(awrence) 1906-2004

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WHIPPLE, Fred L(awrence) 1906-2004


See index for CA sketch: Born November 5, 1906, in Red Oak, IA; died August 30, 2004, in Cambridge, MA. Astronomer, educator, and author. A professor of astronomy at Harvard University, Whipple, whose nickname was Dr. Comet, was the foremost expert on comets and the first to formulate an accurate theory about their nature. Earning a B.A. in mathematics from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1927 and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1931, he joined the staff at Harvard University after completing his formal studies. Here he became part of the Harvard College Observatory staff, and the next year began teaching as well. Whipple would spend his entire academic career at Harvard, becoming a full professor in 1950, Phillips Professor of Astronomy in 1968, and chairing the department in the early 1950s. While working at the university's observatory, one of his early accomplishments was creating a design for the telescope that decreased the device's weight significantly while increasing its aperture. His time at Harvard was interrupted during World War II, when he worked as a researcher for the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development. During this time, he invented a way to confuse German radar systems by having airplanes drop bits of aluminum foil into the air. When he first started working at Harvard, Whipple was initially interested in studying galaxies. His boss, however, monopolized that area of research for himself, and so Whipple decided to research comets. At the time, no one knew exactly what comets were, thinking they were simply big chunks of rock. But such theories did not fit well with observations, so Whipple hypothesized that they were actually "icy conglomerates," a term that became popularized as "dirty snowballs." This theory was later confirmed in 1986 when the Giotto space probe was able to get a close look at Halley's Comet. Whipple also had the prescience, in the early 1950s, to foresee the coming age of artificial satellites, and he set up a system of observatory tracking programs that later became the only means available to the United States for monitoring the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite. For this accomplishment, Whipple was given the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In the mid-1940s he also developed a way to shield satellites from debris in space. Despite these accomplishments, Whipple's main interest remained comets, and as late as 1999 he was involved as a researcher for NASA's Comet Nucleus Tour (CONTOUR). Whipple, who retired from Harvard in 1977, was the author or coauthor of several books on astronomy, including Meteors (1958), History of the Solar System (1964), and The Mystery of Comets (1985). Besides his award from President Kennedy, he was the recipient of numerous other honors, including a Benjamin Franklin fellowship from the Royal Society of Arts in 1968, the Kepler Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971, the Career Service award from the National Civil Service League in 1972, the Henry Medal from the Smithsonian Institution in 1973, the UCLA Alumnus of the Year Award in 1976 and the UCLA Medal in 1997, the Golden Plate award from the American Academy of Achievement in 1981, the Gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1983, the Bruce Medal from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1986, and the Living Legend Medallion from the U.S. Congressional Library in 2000. Whipple was also depicted on postal stamps for Mauritania in 1986 and St. Vincent in 1994.



Chicago Tribune, September 2, 2004, section 3, p. 9.

Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2004, p. B8.

New York Times, August 31, 2004, p. A19.

Times (London, England), September 4, 2004, p. 38.

Washington Post, September 1, 2004, p. B5.