Whipple, Fred Lawrence

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(b. 5 November 1906, Red Oak, Montgomery, Iowa;

d. 30 August 2004, Cambridge, Massachusetts), astronomy, meteoritics, orbit calculations, upper atmosphere studies, space research.

Whipple was a leading planetary astronomer in the mid to late twentieth century who contributed to a wide array of problems that involved the minor bodies of the Solar System, meteors and comets, and the nature of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. He will be popularly remembered for his model of a comet nucleus, but his impact was largely through his institution building and leadership in the astronomical profession.

Early Life. Born on a farm near Red Oak, Iowa, Fred Whipple was the only surviving son of Harry Lawrence Whipple and Celestia (MacFarland) Whipple of English and Scotch-Irish descent. He survived polio at age five after experiencing the trauma of his younger brother’s death a year earlier. Education began in a rural one-room schoolhouse, and Whipple became a habitué of the Red Oak Library some ten miles away. As a youngster, Whipple engrossed himself in solitary and escapist activities, reading mainly fairy tales and adventure science fiction, enjoying everything from Edgar Allan Poe through H. G. Wells. He also read the Electrical Experimenter. In high school Whipple distinguished himself in spelling and ciphering bees. Exposed to farm life, he became fascinated with machinery and its functional aspects, occupying himself with Meccano and Erector sets as well as some chemistry experiments. Another fascination was radio, based upon watching one of his friends build and operate a ham set. At age fifteen, in his junior year of high school, he moved with his family to Long Beach, California, where his father became a commercial grocer. Whipple’s father had been an elder in the local Presbyterian church in Red Oak, and the family took religion very seriously. Whipple broke away when he left home for college, but continued as a member of the Christian Endeavor Society for some time.

College Years. Whipple was bound for a college education. His precocity and the death of his brother focused his parents on his success. Los Angeles was a major change of life for Whipple, who enjoyed the climate and wider opportunities for recreation. He made friends, played tennis and started building radio sets when his family sent him to Occidental College, a small Presbyterian school in Eagle Rock, east of Los Angeles. He found Occidental wanting and so lobbied his parents to allow him to switch to UCLA, which he did, though he was required to come home on the weekends to work in the grocery store.

Whipple’s parents hoped he would take up medicine, but he resisted, opting for mathematics, in which he excelled. At UCLA, however, he found astronomy intriguing as it was then taught by Frederick C. Leonard. Through Leonard, Whipple secured a graduate fellowship to Berkeley in 1927. Whipple did not attribute his later interests to Leonard, and in fact dated his exposure to orbit theory to his graduate years, when he studied mainly under Armin Otto Leuschner. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he was still an avid reader of science fiction, devouring issues of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories and other pulp fiction series.

At Berkeley Whipple was supported mainly by graduate teaching fellowships (1927–1929), summer work at home and then, in 1929, by summer teaching at Stanford. In 1930–1931 he was awarded a Lick Fellowship. He married Dorothy Woods of Los Angeles in 1928 and they had one son, Earle Raymond, born in 1930.

Whipple excelled in orbit theory under Leuschner, but he was also exposed to astrophysics under Donald Menzel from Lick Observatory, and to stellar astronomy under Robert Trumpler and C. Donald Shane. There was a competitive spirit among the graduate students performing orbit computations, seeing who could compute the fastest. Whipple’s orbit for newly discovered Pluto, co-generated with Ernest Clare Bower and two other students working under Leuschner’s direction, was published in 1930. It was his second publication, and gained some notoriety in the initial excitement over the question of whether Pluto was in fact the planet predicted by Percival Lowell in 1915.

Despite his passion for orbit theory, Whipple knew that an astrophysics thesis would put him in the mainstream. So he worked under Menzel at Lick to conduct spectroscopic observations, and in 1931 completed his thesis, a spectrophotometric study of two Cepheid variables in which he attempted to describe the variations in line profiles for Cepheids based upon a pulsation model. He did not succeed in this, although his thesis was accepted. This experience, and subsequent attempts at Harvard to engage in mainstream astrophysics, proved elusive, so he concentrated in the more tractable realm of mathematical astronomy and orbit theory.

Even so, Whipple worked better with Menzel than with any of the more traditional Lick astronomers. Menzel recommended Whipple to Harlow Shapley, director of the Harvard College Observatory, for a junior observer position. There were other openings, but Whipple opted for the “big puddle” (Whipple oral history, 29 April 1977, p. 35).

Harvard College Observatory. One of Whipple’s first tasks as an instructor at Harvard was to transfer a set of photographic patrol cameras and other instruments some twenty-six miles to the west, to the Agassiz Observing Station in Harvard, Massachusetts. He also engaged in a range of observational studies that centered on Shapley’s galaxy programs, studied Nova Herculis with Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, designed prismatic instruments for the Agassiz Station, discovered new comets, computed asteroid orbits from observations by the Harvard patrol cameras, collaborated with Jesse Greenstein on an attempt to interpret radio noise from the Milky Way as thermal radiation, pondered the ages of planetary nebulae, and in 1939 began to take an interest in the use of meteors to study the upper atmosphere of the Earth.

Whipple’s main line of work, however, emerged from contact with the Estonian astronomer Ernst Öpik, who was the stimulus for the Harvard Meteor Expedition to Arizona in the years 1931–1933, where widely spaced cameras stereoscopically captured photographic records of meteor trails to improve knowledge of their orbits, specifically to confirm that a large portion had hyperbolic orbits and therefore came from deep space. Öpik held firmly to a vision of a vast reservoir of comet nuclei, asteroids, and meteors centered on the Sun but at nearly interstellar distances. Using Öpik’s statistical methods, Whipple began studying meteor radiants in 1933, and then started improving Harvard’s observational techniques using new reliable synchronous motors to drive image choppers that provided rate information for the trails. He set up cameras on campus and at Agassiz, and was soon rewarded with sets of trail plates that promised improved orbits. Expecting to confirm Öpik’s hyperbolic orbits, Whipple soon realized that all the orbits were elliptical. His conclusions drew Öpik’s enmity initially, but it led Whipple to refine his techniques of analysis and to improve knowledge of meteor orbits to the point where he realized that their velocities and deceleration rates could reveal valuable information about the earth’s uppermost atmosphere. He was promoted to lecturer in 1938.

The War Years. In January 1943, Whipple entered war work at Harvard’s Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) facility, the Radio Research Laboratory, focusing on radar countermeasures. The previous several years, however, had not been easy for him. At Shapley’s behest, he wrote one of the Harvard Books on Astronomy, Earth, Moon and Planets, which appeared in 1941. But personal pressures had been building, evidently since childhood, and were probably deepened by his divorce from his first wife in 1935. He suffered a complete breakdown in the spring of 1942, from which he did not recover fully until the end of the year. He was confined to a sanitarium in Milwaukee till September.

Once back at Harvard in the late fall, Whipple saw to the publication of a paper that he had planned to give in Chicago, where he had taken ill. It appeared the next year as a major contribution, “Meteors and the Earth’s Upper Atmosphere.” By then he was deeply involved with airborne radar countermeasures, applying theory developed by an antennae expert at the RRL to design an airborne chaff generating system that possessed the best ratio of radar reflection to weight. Throughout his civilian service he supervised five technicians and two research associates, and evidently the experience gave him seminal training in how to operate effectively within a large-scale government and military infrastructure. It was a watershed period during which Whipple gained deep insight into ways of securing research support and becoming a player in setting guidelines and boundaries for the military support of research in postwar America.

Postwar Research and Planning. Meteor research continued to be Whipple’s focus after the war, but the scale of the enterprise changed significantly. Supported first by the Navy Bureau of Ordnance and the Office of Naval Research and then by the U. S. Air Force’s Air Research and Development Command and the Air Materiel Command, and later by the Office of Ordnance Research, by 1950 Whipple had replaced the small cameras at Harvard’s observing stations with wholly new and radical designs based upon James G. Baker’s adaptation of the fast Schmidt reflector dubbed the “Super-Schmidt,” with 12-inch aperture, 8-inch focal length, and 55-degree photographic field. Whipple wanted to reach magnitude limits where radio meteors were now being routinely recorded, so that correlation studies could be made that would yield critical information on the ionosphere as well as on the meteor trails themselves.

Whipple’s postwar career took on a very different flavor from his solitary work prior to the war. Emerging from war work, he reorganized his programmatic research interests under subordinates at Harvard, and in the late 1940s devoted himself to becoming active in a wide range of committees and panels centered upon the organization of scientific research by the military. He worked in various capacities for the Joint Research and Development Board, later the RDB, after the establishment of the Department of Defense. In January 1946 he became a charter member of the V-2 Panel, later called the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel, under the auspices of Army Ordnance. He was a subcommittee member for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics from 1946, and chaired numerous study panels and review boards dealing with the conduct of the atmospheric sciences. All of this activity greatly facilitated his ability to work within government and military research and development circles, seeking ways to build up his various research interests. As an elite academic, Whipple was often sought out and encouraged by these Washington institutions; his membership lent authority and prestige.

Whatever the causes for his breakdown in 1942, the experience of the war, his steady rise in the ranks at Harvard and in the astronomical profession, and his extremely adept networking style in Washington, attest to a man who became more than fully functional, though how satisfied that made him remains unknown. He was promoted to associate professor in 1945 and in 1947 became chairman of the Committee on Concentration in the Physical Sciences at Harvard. By the late 1940s he was lecturing some six hours per week, supervising upward of fifteen graduate students, and in 1949 was asked to assume the responsibility of chairman of the Department of Astronomy, the teaching arm of Harvard College Observatory. He administered the academic affairs of the observatory, supervising four lecturers and five research assistants. He may not have been too happy with this responsibility, a chore Menzel himself had earlier rejected, because in July 1949 he applied for the position of superintendent of the Optics Division at the Naval Research Laboratory, claiming this would increase his chances of performing scientific research. He made his intentions known to his superiors, and soon Harvard provost Paul Buck promised him a promotion to full professor not later than July 1951. Although still carrying the chore of the chairmanship, Whipple stayed at Harvard.

Whipple was remarried in 1946. He and his second wife Babette Frances Samelson had two daughters, Dorothy Sandra Whipple and Laura Whipple.

Harvard Astronomy at a Crossroads. The late 1940s and early 1950s were turbulent years for the astronomical staff at Harvard. Shapley’s outspoken public persona had made him a pariah to the Harvard administration, which considered the state of astronomy to be in a shambles. His scheduled retirement in September 1952 gave the administration the chance to appoint an external review committee, headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer. They duly found Harvard astronomy seriously deficient, mainly in facilities, but also in staff. No one on the present staff was deemed worthy to be the new director. Divisive factions on the staff, split along lines created during the war over war research, were making the place dysfunctional. Of all the senior staff, Whipple tried to keep the lowest profile until Menzel emerged as acting director, whereupon Whipple backed him vigorously. He aligned with Menzel as both saw the value of parlaying Washington contacts to establish new lines of patronage that weakened the traditional autocracy of the observatory director, Shapley. Bart Bok, who aligned with Shapley, bitterly accused Whipple of chiding his righteous refusal to court military funding and suggesting that he modify his research programs to be amenable to military support.

In one of his first actions, Menzel managed to get Bok and Whipple to shake hands and agree to work together to manage observatory responsibilities. Menzel also campaigned for equitable pay for Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and as a result garnered support from the majority of the senior staff. Drastic steps he took to bring fiscal controls to observatory operations earned him the enmity of some staff, but convinced the Harvard administration that Menzel would be an effective director if no truly outstanding external candidate came forth. Menzel was designated Shapley’s successor in January 1954.

Whipple’s Growing Research Empire. Menzel was Whip-ple’s strongest ally at Harvard and under his direction Whipple flourished. Baker’s Super-Schmidt design had improved knowledge of meteor orbits by two orders of

magnitude, making it possible to explore the physics of meteor ablation caused by frictional heating from atmospheric drag. He and his assistants also studied the “jet action” on heated rotating solid bodies, which he soon found he could apply to the behavior of cometary nuclei encountering solar heating in the inner Solar System. Whipple and others had long suspected that a comet nucleus had to carry a reservoir of gaseous material in the solid state that would sublime into jets of gas when heated by solar radiation. But Whipple also realized that jets from a spinning nucleus would produce an acceleration different from the direction of solar gravitational forces, and hence there would be non-gravitational forces perturbing the comet’s motion around the sun. This, he realized, could explain the peculiar motions plotted for some comets that oddly deviated from simple elliptical motion. Whipple parlayed this brilliant interpretation into a series of studies of non-gravitational effects on long-period comets including an analysis of the orbit of the famous Comet Encke, showing it to be a very old comet associated with the Taurid meteoroid streams.

Of even greater value was Whipple’s development of a theory of cometary structure, his “icy conglomerate model” that emerged as he was exploring deviations from purely gravitational influences. In December 1949 he proposed a series of tests of his model, both orbital tests and spectroscopic tests for suspected emission characteristics of the jets, and in subsequent years, brought many of them to fruition, firmly establishing the model.

Among American astronomers of that day, Whipple was the strongest advocate of space flight. He remained with the interservice V-2 Panel from its inception through every stage of its evolution until it suspended operation in the early 1960s. His passion for science fiction and his pursuit of upper atmosphere studies placed him not only at the center of the actual activities, but among those advocating a future in space.

After participating in a 1951 Symposium on Space-flight held at the Hayden Planetarium, Whipple became part of a group of writers for Collier's that produced a popular book titled Across the Space Frontier, published in 1952. He wrote about the exploration of the Moon, the kinds of astronomical observations possible from a space station, the use of robotic telescopes free-flying around a manned space station, and means of securing spectroscopic and photometric observations in the far-UV and xray regions of the spectrum. He wrote avidly for Saturday Review and for Sky & Telescope, and in June 1954 joined the Project Orbiter committee, supported first by the Air Branch of the Office of Naval Research and soon joined by Wernher von Braun’s team at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. In early 1955, as Whipple became the new director of the Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory, he participated in an Army-Navy proposal to the Department of Defense to launch the first artificial satellite, a proposal that lost out to the competing Navy proposal, Project Vanguard.

Whipple’s advocacy of the infrastructure for space flight in most all of its forms became his public face over the next decade, as he sought to parlay his new Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory affiliation with its new Harvard base into a major institutional center for government and military-supported space research. The steps he took in the following several years reflect this ambition. As he continued his own high-profile activities, issuing public statements and participating in advisory panels and committees, he enlarged his meteor tracking capabilities with new technologies and expertise capable of high-precision optical satellite tracking. The new Smithsonian connection made that possible.

Creation of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. One of the most significant transformations of Harvard astronomy since Edward C. Pickering was installed as director in 1877 came when the Smithsonian moved its Astrophysical Observatory to Cambridge. In 1953, the new Smithsonian secretary Leonard Carmichael pondered options for its venerable, but moribund, Astrophysical Observatory. Realizing that he could not attract a first-rate astronomer to the National Mall for solar work, he settled on an academic setting and liaison with a major teaching and research center. Among others, Carmichael consulted Donald Menzel, and by the end of 1954, Menzel proposed that the Smithsonian move to Harvard. Menzel was, of course, a major figure in solar research and so the association made good sense. He initially had a younger theorist in mind to head the Smithsonian unit at Harvard, but when its enormous potential became evident, he focused on Whipple. By mid-1955 a plan was in place. There would be shared facilities and joint appointments between the Smithsonian and Harvard, with the opportunity to build major new projects that would attract government and private patronage. The Smithsonian would fund the construction of new buildings and would act as a means for accepting a wide range of government and military contracts. Acquired Smithsonian expertise would complement Harvard strengths in solar astrophysics and in meteors, drawing to it problems of the upper atmosphere and a cross-over area envisioned as “astronomical geophysics.” Advanced training for astronomers, use of new technologies such as radio and radar, and Whipple’s theoretical studies in aerodynamics were also identified as ingredients in a mix that would find application in fields as diverse as astrophysics, the design of airplanes, the study of explosive shockwaves, and the pursuit of climatology models from a fuller reconnaissance of the upper atmosphere.

Dean of the faculty McGeorge Bundy endorsed this plan with Whipple as the director. Bundy saw Whipple as a man of broad vision and great dreams, most of all as someone who knew Washington and who could manage classified research projects as well as those in the open civilian sector. Whipple recalled that he saw this post as his best opportunity to realize his goal of creating a worldwide photographic satellite observing program as a first step toward building an infrastructure for managing space research. It is not difficult to imagine his vision extending seamlessly from the practical necessity of satellite tracking to the capability of a space station.

With Whipple’s energies rekindled by this new administrative challenge, combined with his prudent but remarkably agile strategy and extensive Washington connections, the new Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) was not a mere appendage of Harvard astronomy, but a full partner and soon a vigorous competitor.

Growth of the SAO. Under Whipple, the growth of SAO was meteoric. In 1956 his division organization included solar astrophysics, meteor studies, and a satellite program supported by the National Science Foundation, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, the Air Force and the Smithsonian. In 1957, the same divisions remained, but staffing was tripled to several dozens of professionals. The satellite program, by far the largest in manpower and funding, was split into two divisions: a worldwide photographic network using a vastly enhanced Super-Schmidt system—the Baker-Nunn network—and a volunteer visual tracking network, Project Moonwatch, that became a burgeoning data collecting and public relations entity that, for all intents and purposes, provided public access to the Space Age. At the center of all this was a large computational analysis group.

By 1958 SAO was contracting to provide orbital analysis services for the army, and beginning to propose preliminary studies leading to launching scientific earth satellites for geodesy and astronomy. A greatly enlarged computation and analysis group now included satellite tracking, orbit prediction and analysis, and studies of the earth’s albedo. A new Upper Atmosphere division pursued air density studies, stellar scintillation, lunar dust studies, and planning for x-ray and ultraviolet space telescopes. Through 1959 and into the early 1960s there was explosive growth of all these divisions save for solar astrophysics; from an original staff of less than one dozen personnel in 1955 (none who actually physically transferred from Washington), Whipple commanded a staff of more than 300 in 1961. By 1965 the roster had grown to 468 people, organized into nine bureaus and 73 identified programs, projects, problem areas, and missions. In addition to the large Astrophysical Observing Stations and the Meteors Bureaus, which included atmospheric studies, ablation experimentation and ballistics analysis, there was now a multifaceted laboratory astrophysics division for meteoritic sampling and assaying techniques, electron-beam studies and comet nuclei problems, as well as facilities to explore prebiotic organic chemistry experiments on macromolecular structure and mineral studies relevant for Martian surface evaluation.

Flight Operations managed an early SAO initiative to build and fly an ultraviolet mapping satellite, which rapidly grew as Project Celescope, initially to include facilities for tracking, data acquisition, and data analysis that would eventually serve as a model national facility. By 1965, Celescope had suffered technical delays and cutbacks, but was scheduled for launch in 1968 on the second Orbiting Astronomical Observatory. Celescope, however, also was part of a Stellar Observations division at the SAO that included a new Stellar Theory section responsible for the theoretical and observational analysis of stellar atmospheres. This section prospered and grew into a full-blown theoretical analysis group. SAO also participated with Harvard in instrumenting the Orbiting Solar Observatory series, as well as numerous experiments for balloons and rockets. A Stellar and Planetary Observation Bureau included both technical innovation and traditional astronomical studies of planets, stars and galaxies, and a large Theoretical Astrophysics Bureau explored a wide range of problems in planetary, solar and stellar atmospheres, cosmic rays, and cosmology. Smaller bureaus studied astronomical history and chronology, and there were two Central Bureaus for the dissemination of astronomical telegrams, late breaking alerts about celestial phenomena, and satellite geodesy.

SAO grew into a truly large-scale complex of systems that informed Whipple’s long-term interests in the nature of the upper atmosphere, in both the physical and celestial dynamics of meteorites as probes of the history of the solar system, and in the highly critical area of geodesy, which simultaneously added to the scientific understanding of Earth and to ballistic orbit prediction and place-finding (target acquisition) on Earth. Indeed, Whipple’s geodetic interests, combined with his work on the upper atmosphere, were the two most significant geophysical variables affecting the determination of satellite and ballistic trajectories.

Widening Influence. Whipple engaged in the debate over the shape of the nation’s space program. He was one of a few elite scientists called to testify in April 1958 before the House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration. He urged Congress to make space a high-priority government activity, but to keep management away from the military, and, most of all, to put the control of all space research in the hands of civilian, university-based scientists. The government and military certainly had to play a role, but it would be as coordinator and launch facilitator, not as controller, in what he envisioned had to be a competitive peer-reviewed government contracting process.

Whipple’s early orchestration of SAO programs reflected his view of a national space policy, but as the world changed, so did Whipple. SAO structure through the early 1960s was marked by constantly-shifting bureau and division titles, boundaries, staffing, and emphasis as the staff grew into the multiple hundreds. By the mid-1960s, the International Geophysical Year (IGY) and military-inspired divisions were no longer defined or justified in terms of a centralized capability for national purpose. Now they were organized in terms of traditional problem areas familiar to astronomers. More than an institutional retreat from early ambitions, this was a strategy Whipple adapted to strengthen the SAO’s position in the American astronomical community as well as at Harvard.

Whipple was a fervent practitioner of what one of his colleagues called “organizational independence” (Lundquist, 2005, p. 5) which neatly describes how he interacted with his two institutional overseers. He pushed for institutional and professional equity for SAO within Harvard, and vigorously defended SAO’s independence of action within the Smithsonian’s hierarchy. Whipple’s biggest challenge had been the recruitment of staff to perform the tasks he envisioned, and still satisfy the requirements of a joint appointment with Harvard. Although he attracted first-class talent, he had less success satisfying stringent Harvard standards. In time, some of the senior members of the SAO staff did gain faculty status and engaged in a substantial amount of teaching and graduate instruction. Possibly the most visible and important synergistic activity, however, was the expansion of computing facilities and square-footage available to Harvard as a result of Smithsonian growth.

Though SAO staff numbers peaked in the mid-1960s, by then Whipple began thinking about a far larger project more in line with traditional astronomical interests. His efforts to manage space research had been only partially successful at the levels he sought out, so now he turned back to ground-based astronomy, pushing for a large optical observatory in the southwest again appealing to new technologies and strategies. Aligning with visionary tool-builders at the University of Arizona, notably Frank Low and Aden Meinel, Whipple formed a multi-institutional consortium to build the first multi-mirror telescope on a scale large enough not only to demonstrate a new radical design option for obtaining huge optical collecting areas, but to compete with the largest telescopes in the world. What came to be called the MMT, or Multi-Mirror Telescope, was dedicated on Mount Hopkins, Arizona, in 1979, six years after Whipple’s retirement from the directorship. Its six 72-inch mirrors were equivalent to a 4.5 meter collecting area, then second only to the Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar in the continental United States.

Whipple created his empire, building programs, staff, and facilities through what he described as a “brinksman-ship principle” (Whipple Oral History, June 1976, pp. 32–33). He attracted competent scientific staff protected by Federal Civil Service guidelines. He then leveraged administrative and technical support from Congress saying his staff needed proper support as he campaigned with private benefactors pleading for a place to house all these people and facilities, and then used the facilities to attract top notch researchers. Whipple continued this style of entrepreneurship with his advocacy of the Smithsonian’s observatory facility on Mount Hopkins in southern Arizona, a project he described as “a case of opportunism, making use of the Satellite Tracking Program to get the real observatory going” (Whipple Oral History, June 1976, p. 67).

A Change in Focus. At times, Whipple felt seriously hampered by Smithsonian oversight, as well as NASA oversight and Harvard constraints. The more voluble members of his staff sometimes reflected his disdain for bureaucracy. When Leo Goldberg succeeded Donald Menzel as the director of Harvard College Observatory in 1966, adjustments were not forthcoming between the two old friends and colleagues. Goldberg had been attracted to Harvard in 1960 by Menzel, his old professor, and had established a vigorous program in space solar astrophysics. By the mid-1960s, in parallel with Whipple’s ambitions, Goldberg wanted to build a large telescope for Harvard in some suitable climate, but the two were never able to settle on a single vision.

The end of the 1960s was a time for retrenchment and refocus on ground-based activities. In a spring 1970 meeting of the Harvard College Observatory Visiting Committee, which included the new Smithsonian secretary S. Dillon Ripley and other high officials (the SAO had no corollary oversight committee), Goldberg was bluntly asked what he was doing about long-range planning and stability, in case agencies such as NASA were to disappear and NSF were to be downsized. Goldberg responded strongly that no plan could be created without the full participation (and consequently, oversight of) the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Whipple, in spite of Ripley’s query, feared that such oversight would weaken his autonomy and so he strongly resisted the suggestion, hoping to keep the Smithsonian free of, and hence not subject to, Harvard’s planning. Indeed, it would be particularly difficult to continue to execute his successful brinksmanship style, shifting back and forth deftly playing off parallel funding sources against one another.

Goldberg announced that he was resigning in July 1971, partly in protest to difficulties working with Whipple. This created a crisis that led to the full merging of the two observatories under one director. Whipple also stepped down from the directorship in 1972, and retired a year later, maintaining many of his personal research interests in cometary phenomena, meteoritics, and the upper atmosphere.

Although Whipple was encouraged to retire from the directorship, no one contested the fact that he had built up one of the greatest astronomical institutions on the planet. But more than that, and beyond his science, Whipple should be remembered as an innovator, both of new tools and of new forms of institutional arrangements. He acted as a catalyst, directing attention to new technologies associated with rocketry, space flight, optical and non-optical astronomy. He was also an inspiration, keeping planetary astronomy very much alive.

Fred Whipple died at a hospital near Boston at age ninety-seven after a long illness. His personal papers are housed in various collections in the Harvard University Archives, at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and at the American Philosophical Society. For a man who has an asteroid, various comets, and an observatory named in his honor, citations are too numerous to mention, but he probably would have listed at the top the Distinguished Federal Civilian Service award he received from President John F. Kennedy in 1963.



American Philosophical Society Archives.

Harvard University Archives, various collections.

Records of the Radio Research Laboratory, 1942–1946, Harvard University Archives, Pusey Library. Cambridge, MA 02138.

Smithsonian Institution Archives, various collections.

With Pamela Hension Oral History, June 1976. RU 9520. SIA.

With David DeVorkin. Oral History, 29 April 1977. SHMA AIP.

With Owen Gingerich. Oral History, 12 February 1981. AIP AV C-81-6 z.


With Louis Berman. “Elements and Ephemeris of Comet j 1927 Schwassmann-Wachmann.” Lick Observatory Bulletin, no. 394 (1928): 117–119.

With Ernest C. Bower. “Elements and Ephemeris of the Lowell Observatory Object (Pluto) second paper,” Lick Observatory Bulletin, no. 427 (1930): 35–42.

With Ernest C. Bower. “The Orbit of Pluto.” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 42 (1930): 236.

With Ernest C. Bower, William F. Meyer and Ferdinand J. Neubauer, “Preliminary Elements and Ephemeris of the Lowell Observatory Object,” Lick Observatory Bulletin, no. 421 (1930): 189–192.

“A Spectrophotometric Study of the Cepheid Variables Eta Aquilae and Delta Cephei.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, 1931. Reprinted, Lick Observatory Bulletin, no. 442 (1932).

“The Colors and Spectra of External Galaxies.” Harvard College Observatory Circular 404 (1935): 1–21.

“Photographic Meteor Studies II. Non-Linear Trails.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 82 (1940): 275–290.

Earth, Moon and Planets. Philadelphia: Blakiston, 1941. Rev. 1958, 1963, 1968.

“Meteors and the Earth’s Upper Atmosphere.” Reviews of Modern Physics 15 (1943): 246–264.

With Joseph L. Gossner, “An Upper Limit to the Electron Density Near the Earth’s Orbit.” Astrophysical Journal 109 (1949): 380.

“A Comet Model. I. The Acceleration of Comet Encke.” Astrophysical Journal 111 (1950): 375–394.

With S. P. Wyatt, “The Poynting-Robertson Effect on Meteor Orbits.” Astrophyical Journal 111 (1950): 134–141.

“A Comet Model. II. Physical Relations for Comets and Meteors.” Astrophysical Journal, vol. 113 (1951): 464-474.

With Richard N. Thomas, “The Physical Theory of Meteors. II. Astroballistic Heat Transfer.” Astrophysical Journal 114 (1951): 448.

“On Meteor Masses and Densities,” Astronomical Journal 57 (1952): 28.

“Photographic Meteor Orbits and their Distribution in Space.” Astronomical Journal 59 (1954): 201.

“A Comet Model. III. The Zodiacal Light.” Astrophysical Journal 121 (1955): 750.

With J. Allen Hynek and Karl G. Henize. “Report on the Precision Optical Tracking Program for Artificial Earth-Satellites.” Astronomical Journal 64 (1959): 52.

“Evidence for a Comet Belt beyond Neptune.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 51 (1964): 711–718.

With Richard B. Southworth and Carl S. Nilsson, “Studies in Interplanetary Particles.” SAO Special Report #239, 1967.

The Collected Contributions of Fred L. Whipple. Cambridge, MA: Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, 1972.

“Incentive of a Bold Hypothesis: Hyperbolic Meteors and Comets.” In Education in and History of Modern Astronomy, edited by Richard Berendzen. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1972.

With Walter F. Huebner. “Physical Processes in Comets.” Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics 14 (1976): 143–172.

“Rotation and Outbursts of Comet P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 1.” Astronomical Journal 85 (1980): 305–313.

“The Cometary Nucleus—Current Concepts.” Astronomy and Astrophysics 187 (1987): 852–858.

“Comets in the Space Age.” Astrophysical Journal 341 (1989): 1–15.

“The Black Heart of Comet Halley,” Sky and Telescope 73 (March 1987): 242–245.


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DeVorkin, David. Science with a Vengeance: How the Military Created the US Space Sciences after World War II. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1992. Reprinted, 1993, paperback study edition.

———. “Who Speaks for Astronomy? How Astronomers Responded to Government Funding after World War II.” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 31, part 1 (2000): 55–92.

———. “SAO during the Whipple Years: The Origins of Project Celescope.” In The New Astronomy: Opening the Electromagnetic Window and Expanding our View of Planet Earth, edited by Wayne Orchiston. New York: Springer, 2005.

Doel, Ronald E. “Redefining a Mission: The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory on the Move.” Journal for the History of Astronomy 21 (1990): 137–153.

———. Solar System Astronomy in America. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Lundquist, Charles A. “Fred L. Whipple, Pioneer in the Space Program.” Papers of the International Astronautical Congress, 17–21 October 2005. IAC-05-E4.1.04.

Marsden, Brian. “Fred Lawrence Whipple (1906–2004).” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 117 (2005): 1452–1458.

Thomas, Shirley. “Fred L. Whipple.” In Men of Space, vol. 2, Philadelphia, PA: Chilton, 1961.

Yeomans, Donald Keith, “Fred Lawrence Whipple, 1906–2004.” Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society 36 (2004): 1688–1690.

David DeVorkin

Whipple, Fred Lawrence

views updated May 29 2018

Fred Lawrence Whipple

During his lifetime, American astronomer Fred Whipple (1906–2004) was recognized as the world's leading expert on solar system astronomy. Before Whipple came along, scientists believed comets were nothing more than loose clouds of dusty vapor held together by gravity. In 1950, however, Whipple proposed that comets were really enormous rock–embedded ice balls surrounded by gas and dust. His so–called "dirty snowball" theory remained controversial until 1986, when a spacecraft photographed the icy contents of Halley's comet, proving Whipple's 36–year–old theory to be accurate. Besides comets, Whipple dedicated his life to studying other components of the solar system. His work helped scientists around the globe better understand the universe and also helped pave the way for spaceflight.

Discovered Astronomy in College

Whipple was born November 5, 1906, in Red Oak, Iowa, to farmers Harry Lawrence and Celestia (MacFarland) Whipple. When he was in his teens, the Whipples left the family farm and relocated to Long Beach, California. Once there, Whipple worked as a clerk in his father's grocery store. He graduated from Long Beach High School in 1923. From 1923–24, Whipple studied at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, and dreamed of a career in tennis. He later transferred to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

In an August 2000 issue of Science, Whipple wrote about his childhood. "As an Iowa farm boy, I contracted a case of polio and it prevented me from becoming a professional tennis player. When I entered the University of California at Los Angeles, it was still my main ambition to excel at tennis. A mathematics major enabled me to bring home good grades without having to spend much time on studies. But I never made the tennis team."

During his junior year at UCLA, Whipple took a course from famed astronomer Frederick Leonard, founder of the Meteoritical Society. Studying the science of the universe and its matter intrigued Whipple. He began to focus more on astronomy and less on mathematics, though he completed his studies in mathematics, earnings his degree in 1927. By then, it had become clear to Whipple that he had to give up his dream of playing professional tennis. Instead, he turned his full attention to astronomy and with Leonard's help, secured a teaching fellowship in astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley.

While studying at Berkeley, Whipple learned how to compute the orbits of celestial bodies, such as meteors, comets and planets. He was part of a team that calculated the orbit of the newly discovered planet Pluto. After graduating with his doctorate in astronomy in 1931, Whipple became head of the observing program at the Harvard College Observatory. Once there, he stayed for more than 70 years. When Whipple first went to Harvard, he was interested in studying galaxies, but his boss made it clear that he would be the one studying galaxies. Whipple decided to focus his attention on comets; it became the pursuit of a lifetime. Whipple cautiously examined the "sky–patrol" photographs taken regularly at the observatory and over the course of a decade, discovered six new comets and computed their orbits. He also began to study the behavior of comets, photographing them as they moved in their egg–shaped orbits around the sun.

Helped WWII Bombers Trick Enemy Radar

After the United States became involved in World War II, Whipple left the observatory to work in the office of scientific research and development at the Harvard Radio Research Laboratory. He stayed there from 1942–45. During this time, Whipple worked on radar countermeasures. He co–invented a razor–sharp device that cut aluminum foil into tiny slices called chaff, which were dropped by bombers as they approached enemy radar, thus confusing the readings. Dropping the aluminum slices made it appear like there were more aircraft in the sky than in reality. In 1948, Whipple earned a Presidential Certificate of Merit for this invention.

After the war, Whipple returned to the Harvard observatory and his study of comets. He believed spaceflight was just around the corner and in 1946, Whipple invented a "meteor bumper" to protect spacecraft and satellites from collisions with space debris. The device, known as the "Whipple shield," is made up of thin layers of metal that surround the body of a spacecraft a few inches out from its surface. The bumper absorbs the impact when the craft strikes another object. As the 21st century began, the device—with some updates—was still being used on virtually every interplanetary spacecraft put into orbit. Whipple thought of himself as part inventor, part astronomer. Reading his 2004 obituary in the Boston Globe, this is clear: "I'm an engineer at heart," he once remarked, according to the paper. "I've been able to judge what instruments will work and what can be built. That's been the secret to my success."

Developed "Dirty Snowball" Theory of Comets

As Whipple continued his study of comets, it became clear to him that comets had an icy core. At the time, most scientists believed comets were merely dusty orbiting clouds of vapor, sand and rock. Comets were thought of as "floating sandbanks" held loosely together by gravity with no solid core. A minority of scientists believed comets were rocks spewed out by volcanoes on Jupiter and Saturn. The comet's spectacular tail had also troubled scientists. It seemed impossible to think that a comet had enough material to keep emitting its tale without getting smaller and smaller and eventually disappearing. Whipple theorized that comets were really balls of gas, rock and dust with an icy nucleus. He published his so–called "dirty snowball" theory in the March 1950 issue of the Astrophysical Journal. Controversy ensued.

During his studies, Whipple discovered that comets did not act like other bodies in the solar system. They did not adhere to the simple Newtonian mechanics of other bodies—they weren't predictable. Some comets reached the Earth earlier than expected; others were late. Because of this, Whipple theorized that some unknown force—besides gravity—was affecting the comets. Whipple believed that comets were really large masses of dust and ice that vaporized as the comet approached the sun and refroze as it receded from the sun. He theorized that when a comet approached the sun and began to evaporate, it released its frozen water. This trail of vapor not only produced the fabulous tail but also caused propulsion jets that propelled the comet forward, at times altering its orbit. Whipple's theory was much–debated until 1986, when the European Space Agency's Giotto spacecraft got near Halley's comet and snapped pictures of an icy core, proving his theory.

Whipple's idea was "one of the most important contributions to solar system studies" in the twentieth century, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory astronomer Brian Marsden told Boston Globe staff writer David Chandler.

What amazed Whipple's colleagues most about his discovery was that Whipple made the conceptual leap based mostly on intuition, sparked by a little data. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Harvard–Smithsonian Center astrophysicist Mike Lecar summed up Whipple's significance this way: "Unlike other great physicists, he had uncommon common sense. He just looked at things with a fresh eye."

By 1950, Whipple was a full Harvard professor of astronomy. In 1955, he also became director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory after it moved from Washington, D.C., to Cambridge, Massachusetts. He held that position until 1973. During his years at Harvard, Whipple wrote many papers and books and inspired many future scientists, including astronomer Carl Sagan, whose 1980 PBS series "Cosmos" helped popularize astronomy. Whipple's 1941 book, Earth, Moon and Planets, also popularized the study of the skies by explaining solar system astronomy to the masses.

Whipple was also one of the first scientists to envision the coming age of satellites. In the late 1950s, he set up a satellite tracking program called "Moonwatch." Participating in the program were several observing stations around the world, all equipped with special sky–watch cameras, and a network of amateur astronomers who volunteered to watch the skies. When the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957, Whipple's "Moonwatch" team was able to track its progress around the globe. Virtually all information about the satellite that went to the media and public came from Whipple's "Moonwatch" program. President John F. Kennedy presented Whipple with the Distinguished Federal Civilian Service Award in 1963 for this work. At the time of the launch, tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States ran high. U.S. citizens were concerned about having the Russian satellite fly over their country, but Whipple's data eased fears. Whipple was proudest of the award he received for this work. "I think that was my most exciting moment, when I was able to invite my parents and my family to the Rose Garden for the ceremony," he once said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

During the late 1960s, Whipple joined fellow astronomer Aden Meinel in creating the first multiple–mirrored telescope. It started when Meinel told Whipple about six large telescope mirrors the Air Force was getting rid of. Working together, the two invented a multiple–mirror telescope, which collected light from the six mirrors, then focused it onto a single camera. Synthesizing the light from the six mirrors into one image made the telescope perform like a much larger telescope than it was. The multiple–mirror telescope, located on Arizona's Mt. Hopkins, was dedicated in 1979. It held the honor of being the world's third–largest telescope for two decades. In 1982, the Mt. Hopkins Observatory was renamed the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory.

Continued Work into his 90s

Over the course of his career, Whipple made many contributions to the field of astronomy. Besides determining what comets are made of, he also figured out that meteors are made of particles that come from within our solar system, rather than from particles arriving from outside the solar system, as some believed. Whipple also used satellite data to learn about the Earth's upper atmosphere and its daily changes. In addition, he helped advance the types of technology used in studying space. In 1968, the world's first space telescope, called the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, was launched, thanks to Whipple. Though this telescope had a mechanical malfunction that led to its failure, it helped pave the way for the Hubble Space Telescope. "Fred had the vision very early about a telescope in space," Eugene Shoemaker told the Boston Globe's Chandler. "He was talking about this before there was a NASA." For his many contributions to our understanding of the solar system, minor planet No. 1940 was named after Whipple in 1975.

Whipple retired in 1977, though as a professor emeritus, he continued his daily treks to his Cambridge, Massachusetts, office. Until he turned 90, he biked the three miles to his office nearly every day. He continued his work at the observatory almost until the end of his life. Whipple was well–known in the Cambridge area—easily identified driving his car, whose license plate read COMET.

Whipple died August 30, 2004, in Cambridge. He was 97. Whipple was survived by his first wife, Dorothy Woods, and their son, Earle. Whipple and Woods married in 1928 and divorced in 1935. He was also survived by his second wife, Babette Samelson, whom he married in 1946. They had two children, Sandra and Laura.


Boston Globe, October 28, 1996; August 31, 2004.

Guardian (London), September 2, 2004.

Independent (London), November 13, 2004.

Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2004.

Science, August 4, 2000.

Times (London), September 4, 2004.

Whipple, Fred Lawrence

views updated May 29 2018

Whipple, Fred Lawrence

(b. 5 November 1906 in Red Oak, Iowa; d. 30 August 2004 in Cambridge, Massachusetts), pioneer in twentieth-century astronomy best known for his “dirty snowball” theory, which was later proved correct, that comets are made of ice mixed with some rock.

Whipple was born into a farming family, the only child of Harry Lawrence Whipple and Celestia (MacFarland) Whipple. For the first fourteen years of his life, Whipple lived on his family’s farm in Iowa, where, as Whipple would later recall, he spent most of his time going to school and trapping skunks to make some money. During that time Whipple contracted polio, which essentially put a halt to his dream of becoming a professional tennis player. The family moved to Long Beach, California, in 1920. After graduating from high school, Whipple attended Occidental College from 1923 to 1924 and then enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He majored in mathematics because he found the subject easy and it gave him free time to play tennis. Although he repeatedly tried out for the UCLA tennis team, he never made the squad. Following his graduation with a BA in mathematics from UCLA in 1927, Whipple accepted a teaching fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, and married Dorothy Woods. The couple had one child before they divorced in 1935. Whipple married his second wife, Babette Frances Samuelson, on 20 August 1946; they had two children.

Although he graduated from UCLA as a mathematics major, Whipple had already shifted his focus to astronomy by his junior year at UCLA. He received his PhD in astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1931 and then headed east to join the staff of the Harvard College Observatory. Whipple’s first assignment at Harvard was inspecting some 70,000 sky survey photographic plates to make sure that the telescopic camera was accurate. Whipple performed this procedure with a handheld magnifier and, in the process of some 1,200 hours of scanning the photographs, discovered six comets. Among those comets is the 36P/Whipple, which was the thirty-sixth known periodic comet. Whipple received the Donohue Medal for these discoveries. His work in the 1930s included using a new, two-station method of photography, which enabled Whipple to determine meteor trajectories. He discovered that almost all visible meteors are composed of fragile material from comets and that none could be proven to come from beyond Earth’s solar system.

During World War II Whipple conducted research in connection with the U.S. military, including working in radar counter measures at the Harvard Radio Research Laboratory. He is credited with co-inventing the chaff-cutter, a device that cut aluminum foil into thousands of fragments, thus confusing enemy radar into reporting many more attacking planes than were really there. He went on in 1946 to invent a “meteor bumper” in anticipation of future space travel. Called the “Whipple shield,” it is a thin outer skin of metal that protects spacecrafts from meteors by causing them to vaporize when they hit the shield. After the war Whipple turned his full attention to comets, using Super-Schmidt meteor cameras set up in New Mexico. His initial research showed that approximately 99 percent of all meteor orbits are elliptical about the sun, with the other 1 percent having unknown orbits.

Most astronomers in the 1940s believed that comets were not discrete bodies but actually interplanetary “gravel banks” held together by gravity as they traveled through space. But Whipple thought that they were actually discrete bodies of ice and dust. In 1950 he published his seminal paper in the Astrophysical Journal, presenting his theory to a wide scientific audience. Whipple had observed that Encke’s Comet, which returns for viewing every 3.3 years, returned half an hour to an hour earlier than predicted, which had led to the theory that the comet might be encountering a resisting medium in space. Whipple realized that the orbit might change slightly through gas vaporization from ices. Furthermore, he stated that no gravel bank could last through 1,000 revolutions around the sun as Encke’s Comet had done. In his landmark paper, he proposed that comets have large, solid nuclei composed of ices, such as water, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, or carbon monoxide, which are mixed with other particles. When reporting on this new theory, the popular media referred to it as the “dirty snowball” theory. Although the theory grew to be widely accepted, it was not proven until 1986 with the return of Halley’s Comet. At that time photographs taken by the Giotto spaceship of the European Space Agency showed that the comet had a discrete nucleus roughly the size of New York City.

Whipple continued to work at Harvard throughout his career, acting as director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge from 1955 until 1973, when it merged with the Harvard Observatory and was renamed the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. According to the scientist, his greatest honor was receiving the Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service from President John F. Kennedy in 1963 for his project of setting up a network of cameras to track satellites. Once again thinking ahead, Whipple and his fellow astronomers had already begun setting up the network through their “Moonwatch” group and were the only ones ready in 1957 to track Sputnik, a satellite launched by the former Soviet Union, which was engaged with the United States in the cold war. Whipple retired from Harvard in 1977, having held numerous posts, including chairman of the astronomy department from 1949 to 1956 and Phillips Professor of Astronomy beginning in 1968. Despite his “official retirement,” Whipple continued to conduct research and publish until he was ninety, bicycling to the observatory at Harvard six days a week. In 1999 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration chose him to work on the Comet Nucleus Tour spaceflight mission, making Whipple the oldest researcher ever to accept such a post. Whipple’s numerous awards included the J. Lawrence Smith Medal of the National Academy of Sciences for research on meteors and the Space Pioneers Medallion for contributions to the Federal Space Program. Whipple died at the age of ninety-seven at a Cambridge hospital after a prolonged illness.

The oldest living astronomer and planetary science pioneer at the time of his death, Whipple, who was known as “Dr. Comet” to his friends, had a profound influence on furthering planetary science. Although best known for his “dirty snowball” theory of comets, Whipple had many research interests that led him to make contributions to numerous fields, including astronomy, satellite tracking, variable stars, supernovas, astronomical instrumentation, and radio astronomy. Whipple’s legacy includes the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins in Arizona.

An in-depth profile of the scientist and his achievements is in Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present (2001). The author’s reminiscences of his childhood and career are in “Of Comets and Meteors,” Science 289, no. 5480 (4 Aug. 2000): 728. Biographical articles about Whipple include Ken Gewertz, “Fred Whipple: Stargazer,” Harvard University Gazette (18 Oct. 2001), and David H. Levy, “Dr. Comet at 95,” Sky and Telescope 103, no. 1 (Jan. 2002): 89–90. Obituaries are in the New York Times (31 Aug. 2004), the Washington Post (1 Sept. 2004), and Nature 432 (4 Nov. 2004): 31.

David Petechuk