Photo of Eugene N. Parker

Eugene N. Parker

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For his fundamental studies of plasmas, magnetic fields, and energetic particles on all astrophysical scales; for his development of the concept of solar and stellar winds; and for his studies on the effects of magnetic fields on the solar atmosphere.

When Eugene N. Parker first pitched his theory on solar wind — the idea that the sun emits a constant stream of plasma, visible in the “aura” of a solar eclipse — he was met with rebuke because the idea challenged the prevailing notion that interstellar space was an empty void. Two reviewers at the Astrophysical Journal rejected his paper on the topic before it was plucked from the discard pile by eventual Nobel-winning physicist and then-editor Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. The theory was confirmed years later through satellite observations.

The discovery led to the understanding of phenomena like magnetic storms, or disturbances in the earth’s magnetic field, and the lights of the Aurora Borealis. Parker left his mark on astrophysics in a number of other advancements, too, such as dynamo theory, which explains how small planets form their own magnetic fields, and through the guidance he gave his students at the University of Chicago.

By Lauren Clason