Astrophysicist Eugene Parker, pioneer in the study of the Sun, has died

The scientific community has just lost one of its brightest stars.

Eugene N. Parker, genius theorist and pioneer in the study of the Sun, passed away on March 15th. He leaves behind him an absolutely colossal scientific heritage; this genius theoretician was the very first to anticipate the existence of solar winds, giving rise to a veritable revolution in astrophysics.

Since the information was made public by NASA, tributes have sprung up everywhere; all professionals in the sector hailed this great precursor of heliophysics, starting with the great head of NASA himself. “We are deeply saddened to learn that one of the great scientific minds and leaders of our time has passed away.”, announced the administrator Bill Nelson.

A scientific authority with a colossal legacy

The formula is not chosen at random; Parker was and will be remembered as a “visionary”, a true authority in his field. And this is anything but an exaggeration. “Gene Parker was a legendary figure in our discipline“, affirms Angela Olinto, the dean of the faculty of physics of Chicago where he cut his academic teeth.

He is directly at the origin of several real generational revolutions in astrophysics; his work helped to define some of the fundamental questions of cosmology as we know it today. “The field of heliophysics – the study of the Sun, its dynamics and its system – exists largely thanks to Doctor Eugene Parker”, insists his colleague Thomas Zurbruchen, administrator of the scientific branch of the agency.

Dr. Parker’s contributions to science and our understanding of how the universe works touch all of our work here at NASA“, continues Bill Nelson. “His legacy will live on through the agency’s many current and future works that will be built on the foundation laid by his work.”.

A misunderstood visionary who had to jostle

The first highlight of his career came when he came up with an extremely audacious theory for the time; he is the first to have theorized the existence of solar winds, this flow of supersonic plasma produced by our star.

And the least we can say is that its founding publication (Dynamics of interstellar gases and magnetic fields, 1958) was very, very far from unanimous. Initially, it was even brushed aside by some of the most influential researchers of the time. He explained it in an interview at the University of Chicago in 2018.

The prevailing view at the time was that space was absolutely clean, nothing in it, a total void.”, he summed up in an interview. “The paper’s first reviewer said, “That’s ridiculous. Before writing a scientific paper, you should at least take the trouble to go to the library and learn a little about the subject””, he says.

But Parker, sure of himself, does not budge. “No further remarks, no further comments…if they can’t tell me what’s wrong, my paper must be pretty good!” he remembered with a mischievous smile.

A legendary probe to his name

The paper was finally published despite the reluctance of the review committee, and they did well. The visionary ended up having his revenge; the consecration came four years later, with the Mariner 2 probe. During a careful trip to Venus, the latter was the first to observe the highly energetic particles in question. These were coming directly from the Sun…exactly as Parker had predicted.

60 years later, that work has kicked into high gear with the Parker Solar Probe; this revolutionary solar probe was indeed named in his honor. Just like its illustrious spiritual father, the machine is also at the origin of spectacular discoveries; it notably distinguished itself by becoming the first human construction to “touch” the Sun last December, which represents a major scientific feat.

Its illustrious sponsor now gone, the probe will continue to honor his memory on a daily basis; as it revolves around Parker’s beloved star, it will contribute to the many fundamental questions that the visionary has worked to define during more than half a century of cutting-edge astrophysical research.

You can find the super hgommage of the University of Chicago at this address.

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