The Bruce Medalists


  portrait Photo Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, courtesy Dr. Whipple
Fred Lawrence Whipple
5 November 1906 1986 Bruce Medalist 30 August 2004

Raised on an Iowa farm, Fred Whipple graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, and then helped compute the first orbit of newly-discovered Pluto while a graduate student under Armin O. Leuschner at the University of California at Berkeley. Whipple worked at Harvard University from 1931 to 1977, and directed the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory from 1955 to 1973. He was one of the leaders in the 1973 merger of the SAO with Harvard College Observatory to form the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and in the founding of the SAO observatory in Arizona which was later named after him. In the 1930s, using a new, two-station method of photography, Whipple determined meteor trajectories and found that nearly all visible meteors are made up of fragile material from comets, and that none can be shown to come from beyond the solar system. The project also yielded valuable information about the upper atmosphere, and the cameras were later used to track artificial satellites. During World War II he co-invented chaff—aluminum fragments—to foil radar and protect planes. In 1950 Whipple proposed the “dirty snowball” model for comet nuclei. He suggested that comets have icy cores inside thin insulating layers of dirt, and that jets of material ejected as a result of solar heating were the cause of orbital changes. This model was confirmed in 1986 when spacecraft flew past comet Halley. Whipple’s work on tracking artificial satellites led to improved knowledge of the shape of the earth and greatly improved positions on earth. The discoverer of six comets, Whipple also studied comet rotation and published several books on the solar system. He continued research well into his nineties, serving on the science team of the ill-fated CONTOUR in 2002.

Presentation of Bruce medal
Mercury 15, 139 (1986).

Other awards
American Astronomical Society, Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, 1987.
National Academy of Sciences, J. Lawrence Smith Medal, 1949.
Meteoritical Society, Frederick C. Leonard Memorial Medal,1970, presented by Klaus Keil, Meteoritics 5, 233-34 (1970).
Royal Astronomical Society, Gold medal, 1983, presented by R. Hide, Observatory 103, 189-90.

Biographical materials
Field, George, Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 89, 392-414 (2007).
Gewertz, Ken, “Fred Whipple: Stargazer,” Harvard University Gazette Oct. 18, 2001.
Levy, David H., “Dr. Comet at 95,” Sky & Telescope, 103, 1, 89-90 (Jan 2002).
Lundquist, Charles A., “Fred L. Whipple, pioneer in the space program,” Acta Astronautica 62, 91-96 (2008).
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Whipple, Fred L., “Of Comets and Meteors,” Science 289, 728 (2000).

Bernstein, Adam, Washington Post, 1 September 2004, p. B5.
Brownlee, Don & Paul Hodge, Physics Today 58, 3, 86-88 (March 2005).
Chang, Kenneth, New York Times, 31 August 2004, p. C1.
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 31 August 2004.
Hughes, David W., Astronomy & Geophysics 45, 6.35 (2004).
Marsden, Brian G., PASP 117, 1452-58 (2005).
The Telegraph, 1 September 2004.
Trayner, C., WGN, Journal of the International Meteor Organization 32, 123 (2004).
Whitehouse, David, BBC News, 31 August 2004.
Yeomans, Donald K. & Joseph Veverka, Nature 432, 31 (4 Nov 2004).
Yeomans, Donald K., Bull. American Astron. Soc. 36, 1688-90 (2004).

AIP Center for History of Physics (several)
Harvard Gazette
Science Clarified: Comets and Asteroids

Named after him
Minor planet #1940 Whipple
Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory
Whipple Shield

More references

The Bruce Medalists

Please send comments, additions, corrections, and questions to