Professor wins science prize for theories on solar wind

Sunday, June 22, 2003

CHICAGO -- A University of Chicago physics professor whose pioneering work has been described as "fundamental to mankind's understanding of the sun" was named Friday as the winner of the Kyoto Prize for lifetime achievement in basic sciences.

Eugene Parker, a professor emeritus of physics, astronomy and astrophysics, receives $400,000 for winning the award that was established by the Inamori Foundation of Japan in 1985.

"Eugene Parker is truly regarded as being among the greatest astrophysicists, solar physicists, space physicists and geophysicists of the past 100 years," said Jay Scovie, a spokesman for the foundation. "He has been a pioneer."

In fact, said Scovie, Parker's work on the structure of magnetic fields associated with sunspots "is fundamental to mankind's understanding of the sun and its relationship to the earth and other planets."

Parker, 76, of Homewood, taught at the U of C from 1955 until 1995. During that time, he proposed the existence of what he called "solar wind," or high-speed streams of ionized gas particles emitted by the sun.

At the time, Parker said, the widely held belief among other scientists was that the space between the sun and the earth is a vacuum "except for some individual particles spit out by the sun."

As a result, he said, the opposition by other scientists to the solar wind theory was "vociferous." Later, though, satellites confirmed the presence of solar wind.

Parker was able to show that "there was much more to the sun than what we see," said Patrick McCarthy, a staff astronomer at Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, Calif. "His work is the bedrock of solar astronomy."

Parker said he appreciated the award, particularly since other scientists were so adamant in their opposition.

"I'm just delighted that theories people disagreed with, things you said were borne out," he said. "I hit a few dead ends but we've forgotten about those," he added, chuckling.

Parker has published more than 300 scientific articles. The Kyoto Prize is the latest of several awards he has won, including the United States National Medal of Science, the Gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society and the Bruce medal from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

He will be given Kyoto medal in November at a ceremony in Japan that will be attended by Japan's imperial family.

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