When Eugene Parker was 16 years old, he decided he didn’t want to spend the summer hanging out in suburban Detroit. So Parker went up to the state capital looking to buy some tax delinquent land held by the state.
He selected a 40-acre piece of woods in far-off Cheboygan County, not far from Mackinac Island. There was nothing on the land but trees. He bought it with $120 from his own earlier summertime earnings.
Over the next three summers, Parker, his younger brother and sometimes a cousin and a friend constructed a log cabin on the land. Because this was during World War II and gas was strictly rationed, they couldn’t ask their parents for a ride up, and so they often bicycled the more than 300 miles to their homestead.
The cabin still doesn’t have electricity or indoor running water, but it has been used regularly by Parker and his family for almost 80 years. And in many ways, that cabin reflects the basic character, the drive and the profound originality of the boy who built it and went on to become one of the great theoretical physicists of the 20th century.
Eugene Parker, who passed away earlier this month at 94, has been hailed as the father of solar physics and is perhaps best known as the man who — basically single-handedly and despite many eminent critics –came up with the theory of the “solar wind,” a torrent of charged particles and magnetic fields that always and in all directions is blasting out from the Sun.
Parker’s innumerable achievements in his field, as well as his old-school civility and demeanor, earned him the first and only honor of its kind given by NASA — having a major space mission named after him while alive.
Ailing and aged 91, he nonetheless went with his family down to Florida in 2018 to watch the launch of the Parker Solar Probe — an extraordinary mission that flies through the blast furnace of the Sun’s corona in its effort to learn more about the origins of the solar wind and the forces at play that produce that still mysterious solar corona.
While his work inspired NASA to build the Parker Solar Probe, and quite a few other NASA missions focused on the star that Parker studied, he had nothing to do with building the Parker spacecraft itself. That wasn’t what he did. He spent 60 years-plus at the University of Chicago and wrote more than 400 published theoretical papers — most of them with “E.N. Parker” as the sole author, something that wasn’t, and isn’t, often seen.
Many have called him “humble” because he didn’t seek attention and was, at first glance, about as low-key and genial as a brilliant physicist can be. But colleagues, including his former doctoral student and longtime friend Thomas Bogdan, explain that it was less humility at play than it was a singular and quiet self-confidence in his work and a powerful streak of independence that gave him his unusual calm. What mattered (along with his family, his wood carvings and his time in nature) were the grand theoretical problems he took on one after another and the solutions he found.
And the result of Parker’s long years of toil in solar and space physics, said NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen, is that “nature has become more beautiful, more complex.”
I was captivated by the workings of the solar wind, of the Parker Solar Probe and of Parker himself while writing a story about how and why the probe was “touching the Sun,” which is quite a momentous first-time achievement. I made plans to visit Parker in Chicago; his son Eric said that his health was failing fast, but that he still enjoyed talking science when he felt well enough. But he passed away a few days before I was to interview him, after eight years of coping with increasingly damaging Parkinson’s Disease.
I was prepared to cancel the trip but his son, daughter and others urged me to come out to look through his letters, his carvings and his many papers. There were sides to Eugene Parker, they seemed to be saying, that were little known and most interesting. Perhaps that’s true with most people, but it’s of special interest when the subject is such a highly-regarded but not widely known public figure.
Parker was born in Houghton, Michigan — a small copper mining town in the far Upper Peninsula of Michigan. While his grandfather was president of the town’s Michigan College of Mines and his father got his degree there, 1920s Houghton was an unpretentious place to be from, with a population under 5,000. The family later moved for father Glenn Parker’s graduate education in engineering and ended up outside the Detroit area, where he worked as an engineer for Chrysler.
What I found during my short time with Parker’s letters — most to his parents during the formative and scientifically fertile period of the 1950s and into the 1960s — was a firsthand view of a most unusual man who both changed and in many ways transcended his times scientifically while remaining embedded in those times personally.
Reflecting the time and place, all the letters were hand-written in a careful block print and were sent to his parents, then living on a farm in Dutton, Arkansas. (The letters were addressed to Mr. & Mrs. G.H. Parker, Dutton, Arkansas because the town was so small that nothing more was needed.) After 1952 or so, they all began “Dear Mammy and Pappy.”
The names, I was told, came from the L’il Abner comic strip and reflected the changes in life that occurred when the parents left suburban Detroit and moved to a farmhouse needing work on a square mile of land that the Parker children came to call “Tharwood,” for “that there wood.”
Many letters were sent there because the home didn’t have a phone until the mid 1960s.
The juxtaposition between “Dear Mammy and Pappy” and the scientific laser focus of the letters could be head-spinning. After reporting on rain and droughts (a frequent topic) and the problems and delights of cars (also common) come descriptions of the solar physics and astrophysics that he was thinking and writing about.
In one such letter, Parker says seemingly in passing that during a flight back from a conference in Europe, he was on a slow plane and so had spent time “finishing up a long paper on ‘the solar wind’ I’ve been working on… I have finally succeeded in proving that observed temperatures of the solar corona, even at sunspot minimum, do not allow the corona to be static. It has to expand. And in the theory I have just finished up, it has to expand with 500 km/velocities if it expands at all.”
But he was not particularly happy, sensing the troubles ahead.
“It is amazing that everyone who has had his formal training in astronomy refuses to accept the idea of a solar wind,” he wrote. “They will argue like mad that any child knows that the Sun is a static object. Even when you whip them with a bit of both theory and observations, they won’t go along with it. They discount the observations and won’t study the theory.”
That is what Parker faced as he worked to put together the theory that would change how scientists understood the fundamental workings of the Sun and of host stars of other solar systems.
In his iconic book The Structure of Scientific Revolution, physicist and then historian of science Thomas Kuhn described the importance and dynamics of “paradigm shifts” in science when long-held conclusions are suddenly turned on their heads. Usually this happened, he wrote in 1962, when scientists found an anomaly in a widely accepted model that could not be resolved using the existing models. It usually take unconventional (and unafraid) thinkers to push ahead in the face of the opposition that is sure to come.
In that first major paper he was finishing on his plane ride home, the young Parker (age 30) overturned not one but two well-entrenched paradigms.
First was the conclusion that interplanetary and interstellar space was a vacuum. In other words, the theory held, for most of that vastness of space there is nothing — except in some singular locales. One of the key anomalies that Parker saw was that the gaseous components of the tails of comets always flowed away from the Sun. If the comets were moving through a vacuum, then that shouldn’t be the case.
The second paradigm to be overturned said that the corona of the Sun — the outer atmospheric layer that reached extraordinarily high temperatures — was in essentially static equilibrium. Theory also held that the enormous gravitational pull of the Sun itself would not allow anything to escape. Yet by the 1950s scientists had established that the corona’s plasma — the fourth form of matter created when heat breaks atoms or molecules into charged particles — was a staggering 1 million degrees F. and Parker intuited that such a corona could not simply remain in place. Then he started doing the math.
To resolve the emerging anomalies, Parker’s 1958 paper theorized the presence of a massive, at times supersonic “solar wind” made up of particles embedded in the solar magnetic field, that was breaking free of the Sun at all times and in all directions.
Seeing the outflow from the Sun as a phenomenon that had to be understood in terms of fluid rather than particle dynamics, he was able to define that vast, crucial, yet previously ignored phenomenon. Along the way, he explained why comet tails pointed as they did and how that “static” corona of 1 million degrees actually behaved — expansively.
And tellingly about Parker, he came to his conclusions using 19th century physical laws regarding electricity, magnetism and hydrodynamics — with no need for 20th century quantum mechanics or relativity to explain what was occurring.
The paper was submitted to The Astrophysical Journal and was turned down by two prominent physicist referees. They not only turned it down but wrote that Parker should go to the library and read about the Sun before trying to tackle any similar problems.
The editor of the journal, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a prominent University of Chicago figure and a future Nobel laureate, also found the paper to be wanting. Shown the harsh rejections, Parker rather slyly replied that neither reviewer had actually found any problems with his math. After sitting on it for some time, Chandrasekhar agreed to publish.
The pushback was indeed harsh, and the paper was attacked as misguided. Until, that is, NASA’s Mariner 2 spacecraft passed by Venus in 1962 and detected the presence of a strong “wind” of particles, gas, dust and magnetic field lines charging out from the Sun.
And with that, the world began to discover Eugene Parker. He continued publishing papers until 2016.
With his solar wind work (and much more) he became, in the words of NASA’s Nicola Fox, “the father of heliophysics” — the modern study of the Sun. Fox speaks with authority since she is now NASA’s division director of the burgeoning field of Sun sciences.
“He’s really the father of this whole physics branch,” she has said. “Heliophysics is the study of the Sun and what it does to the solar system, and the way it does that is the solar wind. Gene was the one who predicted it and profoundly changed the way we thought about how our star worked.”
And it is not just our star. The fundamental stellar forces that he described are at work in many other stars as well, meaning that they are crucial to understanding the billions of exoplanets out there and perhaps the potential habitability of those exoplanets as well.
Parker went on to tackle, solve and sometimes solve awaiting confirmation numerous fundamental questions about the most important body in our solar system. The Sun, after all, makes up some 99 percent of the matter in the solar system, and Parker was drawn to its fundamental centrality.
Among his most important contributions is the fundamental backbone of the increasingly important field of space weather — the solar and cosmic particles and embedded magnetic forces that can endanger astronauts, make satellites malfunction and even fry electric grids on Earth. The powerful streams of stellar discharge that Parker placed in the solar wind are central features to an understanding of space weather.
Bogdan, one of Parker’s doctoral students who went on to become director of the federal government’s Space Weather Prediction Center, said that his advisor was a major force in the evolution of the field. Parker, he said, refined our understandings of and identified some of the significant components of space weather.
“He provided a cohesive foundation that numerical space weather prediction efforts could be built upon,” Bogdan wrote in an email.
“I don’t know that you would find the words ‘space weather’ in any of his papers. The antecedents of space weather go way back to observations of a jiggling magnetized needle suspended by a very slender thread either in the late 1600’s or early 1700’s.” But Parker nonetheless “laid the foundation for how we describe the behavior of cosmic rays in our galaxy, as well as the space weather’s charged particle beams that come from the Sun and ionize our atmosphere and cause radiation hazards for astronauts.”
Parker also advanced the study of magnetic fields and the dynamo theory, which proposes a mechanism by which a celestial body such as Earth or a star generates a magnetic field.
As explained by Robert Rosner, a colleague at the University of Chicago, Parker addressed a long-standing problem with dynamo theory: that it required a three-dimensional field to produce magnetism as opposed to the two-dimensional one that had been earlier accepted. But it proved very hard to construct such a three-dimensional dynamo in the lab or to see how nature could produce one.
Parker, however, used theory to almost intuit how it might happen. “Gene had a deep, really fantastic physical sense of how things work in nature,” Rosner said. “He had insight into how a star might arrange itself, what were the right kinds of motions” to make a dynamo work. “And then he had the talent on the mathematical side to figure out the equations that would substantiate that picture. It was almost miraculous.”
Changes have been made to Parker’s dynamo model over the years, but his contribution to the field remains canonical.
One of Parker’s greatest continuing interests, along with the solar wind, has been the still incompletely understood problem of the solar corona and why it is so stunningly hot.
While the interior of our Sun reaches 27 million degrees F. due to the continuous fusing of hydrogen atoms to form helium, the temperatures on the surface of the Sun fall to 10,000 degrees F. But then, in what at first seems like a defiance of the laws of physics, the corona (atmosphere) climbs back up to over 1 million degree F.
Parker theorized first in 1972 that the enormous increase in coronal heat is the result of “nanoflares” across the Sun’s surface — countless relatively small magnetic reconnections that convert the energy stored in the solar magnetic field into the motion of the Sun’s plasma. That energy, Parker argues, quickly turns into innumerable bursts of enormous heat. As calculated by physicist David Smith of the University of California, Santa Cruz, a typical nanoflare has the same energy as 240 megatons of TNT or 10,000 atomic fission bombs.
Parker’s hope to have his nanoflare theory confirmed by the Parker Probe continued until his last days, and his son Eric passed requests to the Solar Probe team for updates and was kept in the loop.
Any discussion of Parker’s contributions to solar science would, of course, be incomplete without discussion of the Solar Probe named after him.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, another University of Chicago colleague of Parker’s, John A. Simpson, was asked to convene a committee to propose future NASA missions based on the most pressing and unaddressed scientific questions in space. Most of the missions on that list were undertaken some time ago; the last was the Parker Solar Probe. The problem was not disagreement about the desirability of such a mission; it was rather how to protect a spacecraft from the heat of the corona enough to take the necessary measurements. That technology didn’t emerge until the 21st century with new types of carbon-carbon material.
But Parker had worked for decades to develop a solar mission that could get as close to the Sun as the Parker Probe and learn more of the Sun’s secrets. Most comfortable as a solitary physicist writing equations on his yellow pads, colleagues said he was nonetheless not politically naive and did what was necessary to make that mission a reality.
NASA’s Nicola Fox said that Parker’s role was instrumental in many ways. He worked on NASA and National Academy of Sciences panels that prioritized projects in heliophysics and was on the steering committee of the 2002 Decadal Survey for Heliophysics, which made the solar probe its highest priority for the next decade.
And, as Fox explained, “just about all the science he did highlighted the need for a probe to fly into the corona to really understand the workings of our star.”
The next Parker Solar Probe rendezvous with the Sun’s corona is set for this summer, when it will orbit 14 times closer to the Sun than Mercury does and will, once again, enter the corona.
As a professor, theoretician, department chair and distinguished professor at Chicago for more than 60 years, Parker was hugely admired by many for his creative mind and no-nonsense approach to most everything.
As described by Stephan Meyer, the son of Parker’s colleague Peter Meyer and later a prominent University of Chicago physicist as well, Parker had his own distinctive way of doing science and of conducting daily life. Meyer recalls that Parker never drank alcohol or coffee (he just wasn’t interested in them), he always drove at 55 miles per hour (even though people behind him might be impatient), and was uninterested in the world of social niceties.
It wasn’t that he was haughty, Meyer said, but rather that he was independent in all things, marching to his own drummer and always setting a high bar — which was intimidating to some students.
“It was pretty well known that more than a few students — undergraduates and graduates — were terrified of Gene. He expected students to come up with their own ideas, to look for their own fundamental problems, and to work on them with both smarts and dedication — just as he did. He set that very high bar, and that left some people quite uncomfortable as they came to his door.”
An example, though with an unusual ending: In the early days of Tom Bogdan’s association with Parker, he was given a problem to work on and sent on his way.
“I tried my best to solve it over four months until smoke came out of my ears. Got nowhere.”
Bogdan screwed up his courage and went to Parker to say he was really embarrassed but that he had been unable to come to any conclusion.
In a matter-of-fact way, Parker replied that he couldn’t solve the problem either. “So let’s get another problem,” Bogdan remembers him saying.
Parker was, by all accounts, singular as a physicist, a thinker and a person. The current dean of the University of Chicago Physical Sciences Division, Angela Olinto, called Parker “a pillar of the school’s greatness, a giant.”
He had the kind of scientific stature that could bring him many students and postdocs and, as a result, many additional research papers — the ability “to make a little industry,” she said.
But Parker was always more interested in the fundamentals and was happy to leave incremental work based on his findings to others. “It’s good in terms of tenure decisions and grants to do incremental work, but it’s beautiful to see someone so dedicated to the fundamental,” Olinto said. “I find that inspiring.”
Rosner, who worked alongside Parker at Chicago for many years, said Parker was definitely not a salesman. “One’s position in a field can be dependent on selling fellow scientists on your ideas. That’s pretty common — to spend a lot of time giving talks on the circuit. Gene didn’t do that.”
While Parker would attend scientific conferences that interested him, Rosner said, “what he loved to do was talk about a new scientific problem. He would stop you in the hallway and start talking about that and pretty much only that or another scientific problem.”
Yet he did agree to take on the often thankless job of department chairman — first of the Chicago astronomy department and then the physics department. It was an act of “service” to the school and the field, Dean Olinto said, that was spurred by Parker’s strong desire to help bring up a new generation of physicists.
Olinto said that Parker greatly improved the department. Daughter Joyce Parker said that it was at some personal cost to such a privacy-loving and independently minded man.
“He didn’t like administration or power—he had to bring bad news to good friends,” she said. “Department meetings took so much more out of him than a long day of working on a really difficult physics problem.”
His genial personality also prompted him to seldom say anything critical about another scientist’s work unless asked — even if he thought the work was fundamentally flawed. But there was at least one major exception when Parker felt the need to speak his mind. Famously, he was no fan of physicist Hannes Alfvén of Sweden, who worked in areas of solar magnetism and plasma behavior that were in Parker’s wheelhouse.
While Parker respected some of Alfvén’s work — he had after all won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1970 — Parker did not think the man dug deeply enough into problems and sometimes had been quite wrong. (That conclusion was shared by enough American physicists that Alfvén complained that he could seldom get his refereed papers published in American journals.) Parker wrote some papers challenging and even undercutting Alfven’s conclusions, and that may have had some implications for his later professional life.
Why? Because the Nobel committee is known to run the names of proposed laureates past those who have already won in their field. And no doubt Parker’s name — nominated many times over — passed before Alfvén. Did he knock Parker out of the running? Many scientists who believe Parker deserved a Nobel several times over think that is quite possible.
After all, Parker won most of the major awards in his field — the Kyoto Prize, the congressional National Medal of Science and, most recently, the 2020 Crafoord Prize in astronomy. The Crafoord is awarded by a committee made up of the Crafoord Foundation of Sweden and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which also administers the Nobel. Although it is much less well known, the Crafoord prize includes with an award richer than that of the Nobel.
Parker’s Crafoord prize will be awarded later this month, after two cancellations due to the Covid pandemic. Parker will be postumously cited for “pioneering and fundamental studies of the solar wind and magnetic fields from stellar to galactic scales.”
Putting Alfvén aside, there is another possible explanation for why Parker did not win a Nobel, and it involves his friend and longtime mentor at the University of Chicago, Nobel laureate Chandrasekhar.
According to Parker’s former student and friend Bogdan and longtime colleague Rosner, the two of them went to see Chandrasekhar in the early 1990s and asked him to boost Parker’s Nobel nomination with a supporting letter.
Because Parker and Chandrashekar were so close, Bogdan and Rosner expected an emphatic “yes.” But instead they got a “no” without further explanation. To have a Nobel laureate at a nominee’s own university and department decline to recommend, the two men said, is a death knell to a nomination.
Neither Bogdan nor Rosner knows why Chandrasekhar (who died in 1995) turned them down, and both men remember the day with great disappointment and some raw feeling.
But perhaps justice was ultimately done. Some have wondered whether the NASA decision to name the Solar Probe after Parker was related to the Nobel slight.
At the ceremony renaming the Parker Solar Probe NASA’s, Zurbuchen, had this to say:
“NASA has named spacecraft after about 20 distinguished researchers … There’s a lot more Nobel Prize winners than there have been (researchers) who have had spacecraft named after them.”
And only one researcher with a mission named after him, or her, while still alive.
Parker’s family and colleagues say that the Nobel Prize didn’t seem to matter much to him. His son Eric said that for years he would, unavailingly, lie awake on Nobel night awaiting a phone call that would report that his father had won. The elder Parker told his son long ago that it never would come, and that it really didn’t matter.
What did matter, Parker wrote in his Kyoto Prize acceptance speech, was to work hard but never ignore your private life. He said that when he was a student at Michigan State University, he would work 12 hours a day because it felt right. But his father told him “too much of anything is not good” and suggested that he “should learn to be the master, not the slave, of my chosen profession.”
He took the advice to heart and said he made sure that his private life was vibrant.
Then he continued, “Your profession may be exhilarating, but it is not sacred and it will not go on forever. You will find that diverting time and energy to personal relationships helps you to free your mind for a fresh look at your work. So you will need to develop a deliberate balanced lifestyle if you want to enjoy a satisfying life. In particular, pass on your concept of curiosity and interest to your children that they may one day be successful in choosing their own life work.”
And he did.
Sure, his children say, he was sometimes gone for conferences around the world and NASA and National Academy of Sciences committee gatherings about the solar probe and more. And sometimes he did sit unapproachable for hours at the kitchen table with a yellow pad, a compass with two stubby pencils and his old slide rule writing down equations.
But he often spent time outdoors — sailing, hiking, enjoying the old log cabin and another place in the countryside. He also went to the North Pole with his son Eric when he was 76.
And although he was known as a kind of sober-sides, low-key figure, he also had a dry, “wicked” (but not in a mean way) sense of humor. This sometimes came out in his life-long wood carving, which included a wooden arm (armpit and all) that reached out from a wall near the fireplace and had a working light in it. And then there was his wine cask bas-relief with the feet beneath it.
Meyer recalls Parker’s playfulness as well. Meyer was a boy when his parents would vacation with Gene and his wife and he remembers well trips the kids would take with Parker to a sand mining site nearly.
“Gene knew all the paths through the woods to the place and then he would join us in the fun. There was a sand machine pulling out sand from the bottom and Gene would jump out further than any of us,” out to a point of maximum sliding. “I was in awe of him.”
It was a small part of his effort to “develop a deliberate balanced lifestyle.”
That balance allowed him to not only remain an active physicist for 75 years, but also a University of Chicago professor for more than 60 years and husband to his wife Niesje for 67 years.
Because Parker spent so much time working on and thinking about the physical processes of the Sun, I looked through the letters, his wood carvings and spoke with colleagues and family about the man’s views on and perhaps emotional connections to the majestic subject of much (though certainly not all) of his work.
I didn’t come up with much.
As a lifelong naturalist, he often said that his greatest pleasure was to use physics to better understand the natural world around us. His gaze, however, was focused on distant and fundamental forces — magnetism, the properties of plasma (the superheated fourth state of matter) and, of course, the one star that scientists can really study, the Sun.
“Gene was not a romantic,” said Chicago physicist and colleague Meyer. “He wanted to know how things worked.”
To explain further, Meyer said that if Parker had been an architect, he would have been the person who figured out how to construct a building — from its inner workings to its windows and doors. If the building turned out to be beautiful, that would be grand and appreciated, but it was not the central point of the endeavor.
There was one quite romantic evocation of the Sun that Parker returned to periodically and would recite at length during festive meals. The opening quatrain of the “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam, Persian philosopher, mathematician, and poet who lived in the 11th and 12th centuries:
“Wake! For the Sun, who scattered into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n and strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.”
The poem does not focus on the Sun, but our star certainly provide quite a set-up.
He was not at all inclined to ascribe myths or transcendence to our star as humans have done for eons. (Perhaps it was related to the fact that he sun-burned easily and had to lather up with sunscreen before heading out to feel its warmth. And he did study the possible dangers of Sun-induced space weather.)
But in a letter that he wrote to the Solar Probe named after him before it launched, and which was published in National Geographic magazine, he did reveal an emotional connection to the taken-for-granted but majestic center of our solar system. Parker was well into his 80s at the time:
“I think there’s a point that’s not widely appreciated, but it’s fundamental: The Sun is an ordinary star of middling mass and middling brightness, but it’s a model for almost all stars—and the only one we’re going to see up close enough to do a whole lot of measurements,” he wrote. “There are stars that are oddballs, the ones that interest the astrophysics types. But the fact that the sun supports life on one of its planets is already a unique designation.
“I’m in love with the sun for that reason. Somehow, in many circles, solar physics is looked upon as old, dusty, dried-up problems that don’t really have new solutions. On the contrary, it’s the one star where we know what we’re talking about!”