Fred Lawrence Whipple

Fred Lawrence Whipple


Date of Birth
November 5, 1906
Date of Death
August 30, 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, 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 (now the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian) and in the founding of the SAO observatory in Arizona which is now 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 could 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. He also invented the "Whipple shield" to protect spacecraft from meteoroids. 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. He proposed and helped organize Operation Moonwatch, in which the public was invited to help track satellites. 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

DeVorkin, David H., Fred Whipple's Empire: The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, 1955–1973. (Free download)
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).
Yeomans, Donald K. & Joseph Veverka, Nature 432, 31 (4 Nov 2004).
Yeomans, Donald K., AIP Center for History of Physics (several)

Academic genealogy


Named after him

Minor planet #1940 Whipple
Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory
Whipple Shield


Papers, etc.

Most of Whipple’s papers are in the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Harvard University Archives. There are oral history interviews with Whipple, his widow, and numerous colleagues at the AIP Neils Bohr Library

Other References: Historical

“Fred Whipple Honored,” Sky & Telescope 62, 545 (1981).

Bailey, M.E., S. V. M. Clube, & W. M. Napier, The Origin of Comets (Pergamon Press, 1990).

DeVorkin, David, “SAO During the Whipple Years,” in The New Astronomy: Opening the Electromagnetic Window and Expanding Our View of Planet Earth, ed. by Wayne Orchiston (Springer, Dordrecht, 2005), pp. 229-50.

Doel, Ronald E., Solar System Astronomy in America: Communities, Patronage, and Interdisciplinary Science, 1920-1960 (Cambridge University Press, NY, 1995).

Field, George B. & A.G.W. Cameron, eds., The Dusty Universe: Proceedings of a Symposium Honoring Fred Lawrence Whipple on his Retirement as Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, October 17-19, 1973 (Neale Watson, NY, 1975).

Jacchia, Luigi G. & Fred L. Whipple, “The Harvard Photographic Meteor Programme,” Vistas in Astronomy 2, 982-94 (1956).

McCray, W. Patrick, “Amateur Scientists, the International Geophysical Year, and the Ambitions of Fred Whipple,” Isis 97, 634-58 (2006).

Whipple, Fred L., “The Incentive of a Bold Hypothesis: Hyperbolic Meteors and Comets,” Annals NY Acad Sci 198, 219-224 (1972).

Whipple, Fred L., “Reminiscences of the Space Age,” Galileo, Sept 1979.

Whipple, F.L., “Background of Modern Comet Theory,” Nature 263, 15-19 (1976).

Yeomans, Donald K., Comets; a Chronological History of Observation, Science, Myth, and Folklore (Wiley, NY, 1991).

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Other References: Scientific

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

Bower, Ernest Clare & Fred L. Whipple, “The Orbit of Pluto,” PASP 42, 236-40 (1930).

Whipple, Fred L., “A Spectrophotometric Study of the Cepheid Variables Eta Aquilae and Delta Cephei,” Lick Obs. Bull. 16, 1-23 (1932).

Shapley, Harlow, “New Comet Whipple (1933f),” IAU Circular #456 (1933) .

Shapley, Harlow & F.L. Whipple, “New Comet Whipple,” IAU Circular #635 (1937).

Whipple, Fred L., “The Physical Theory of Meteors,” Proc. Amer. Phil. Soc. 79, 499 (1938).

Whipple, Fred L., Earth, Moon, and Planets (Blakiston, Philadelphia, 1941; Grosset & Dunlap, NY, 1958; Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1963, 1968).

Whipple, Fred L., “The Orbits of Meteors Photographed at Two Stations,” Astronomical Journal 54, 53 (1948).

Wyatt, Jr., Stanley P. & Fred L. Whipple, “The Poynting-Robertson Effect on Meteor Orbits,” Ap.J. 111, 134-41 (1950).

Whipple, Fred L., “A Comet Model. I. The Acceleration of Comet Encke,” Ap.J. 111, 375-94 (1950), [reprinted in the centennial edition Ap.J. 525C, 393 (1999) with a modern commentary by Michael J.S. Belton]

Whipple, Fred L., “A Comet Model. II. Physical Relations for Comets and Meteors,” Ap.J. 113, 464-74 (1951)

Thomas, Richard N. & Fred L. Whipple, “The Physical Theory of Meteors. II. Astroballistic Heat Transfer,” Ap.J. 114, 448-65 (1951).

Whipple, Fred L., “The Physical Theory of Meteors. VII. On Meteor Luminosity and Ionization,” Ap.J. 121, 241-49 (1955).

Whipple, Fred L., “A Comet Model. III. The Zodiacal Light,” Ap.J. 121, 750-70 (1955).

Hawkins, Gerald S., Curtis L. Hemenway, & Fred L. Whipple, “The Harvard Radio-Meteor Program,” Astronomical Journal 61, 179 (1956).

Hynek, J. A., Karl G. Henize, & Fred L. Whipple, “Report on the Precision Optical Tracking Program for Artificial Earth-Satellites,” Astronomical Journal 64, 52 (1956).

Whipple, Fred L, “Evidence for a Comet Belt beyond Neptune,” Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 51, 711-18 (1964).

Whipple, Fred L, “The History of the Solar System,” Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 52, 565-94 (1964).

Whipple, F.L. & R.P. Stefanik, “On the Physics and Splitting of Cometary Nuclei,” SAO Special Report #182 (1965).

Whipple, Fred L, Richard B. Southworth, & Carl S. Nilsson, Studies in Interplanetary Particles (Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, MA, 1967).

Hamid, S. E., B.G. Marsden, & F.L. Whipple, “Influence of a Comet Belt beyond Neptune on the Motions of Periodic Comets,” Astronomical Journal 73, 727-29 (1968).

Meinel, Aden B., Robert R. Shannon, Frederick L. Whipple, & Frank J. Low, “A Large Multiple - Mirror Telescope (MMT) Project,” in Lewis Larmore & Robert W. Poindexter, eds., Instrumentation in Astronomy, Volume 28; proceedings of the Society of Photo-optical Instrumentation Engineers seminar-in-depth held in March, 1972 in Tucson, Arizona, USA (SPIE, 1972), pp. 155-60.

Whipple, F.L. & W.F. Huebner, “Physical Processes in Comets,” Ann. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 14, 143-72 (1976).

Whipple, Fred, “The Earth as Part of the Universe,” Ann. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 6, 1-8 (1978).

Whipple, Fred L., Orbiting the Sun: Planets and Satellites of the Solar System (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1981).

Keller, H.U., et al, “First Halley Multicolour Camera Imaging Results from Giotto,” Nature 321, 320 (1986).

Whipple, Fred L., “Comets in the Space Age,” Ap.J. 341, 1-15 (1989) [1987 Henry Norris Russell Lecture].

Whipple, Fred L. & Walter F. Huebner, Physics and Chemistry of Comets (Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1990).

Whipple, Fred L., “The Forest and the Trees,” in Comets in the Post-Halley Era, R.L. Newburn, Jr., M. Neugebauer, and J. Rahe, eds. (Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1991), vol. 2, 1259-78.

Whipple, Fred L., “A Volatility Index for Comets,” Icarus 98, 108-14 (1992).

Whipple, F.L., “Oort-Cloud and Kuiper-Belt Comets,” Planetary and Space Science 48, 1011-19 (2000).

Cochran, Anita, et al, “The Comet Nucleus Tour (CONTOUR); A NASA Discovery Mission,” Earth, Moon, and Planets 89, 289-300 (2002).

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Other Works: Popularizations, Fiction, etc.

Whipple, Fred L., “How Distant is the Sun?” Sky & Telescope 1, 11 (1941).

Whipple, Fred L., “The Harvard Photographic Meteor Program,” Sky & Telescope 8, 90 (1949).

Whipple, Fred Lawrence, New Horizons in Astronomy (Smithsonian Inst., Washington, DC, 1956).

Whipple, Fred L., “Astronomy from the Space Station” Sky & Telescope 12, 151 (1953).

Menzel, Donald H., Fred L. Whipple & Gerard De Vaucouleurs, Survey of the Universe (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1970. [introductory astronomy text]

Whipple, Fred L., “Birth and Death of a Comet,“ Astronomy (January 1974).

Whipple, Fred L., “The Spin of Comets” Scientific American 242, 124 (1980).

Whipple, Fred L. & Daniel W.E. Green, The Mystery of Comets (Smithsonian Inst. Press, Washington, DC; Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 1985).

Whipple, Fred L., “Discovering the Nature of Comets,” Mercury 15, No. 1, 2-9 (1986).

Whipple, Fred L., “Memorable Observing Experiences — Part I,” Sky & Telescope 84, 134 (1992).