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Telescopes from the Ground Up
Portrait of Fred L. WhippleCourtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

Fred L. Whipple wanted to be a professional tennis player. It remained his dream even after a childhood case of polio damaged his health. During college, Whipple studied math, hoping the natural talent he had at the subject — as a store clerk, he would add up customer’s purchases in his head — would make it easier for him to focus on tennis. But he never made the team.

Intrigued by an astronomy course he encountered, Whipple changed his area of study to astronomy and earned a doctorate degree in 1931. His first job out of college was at Harvard University, where he inspected the telescopes’ photographic plates to make sure the cameras were operating correctly. While he worked, he looked for comets in the photo negatives. He would end up finding six. It was a sign: comets would continue to bring Whipple fame and recognition.

Whipple was the first to accurately describe a comet. Most astronomers thought they were made up of sand and gravel. In 1950, Whipple theorized that they consisted of dust and ice, giving rise to the popular description of a comet as a “dirty snowball.” His explanation covered why comets have a tail, something other astronomers had not been able to satisfactorily explain.

Whipple frequently applied his insight to problems of Earthly origins as well as astronomical. During World War II, he helped develop a device to slice up shreds of aluminum that, when dropped from planes, confused German radar. Fifteen years before spaceflight, he came up with a “meteor bumper” that would protect spacecraft from meteor impacts; an improved version is still used today. Lastly, during the race to send a man-made object into space, Whipple organized a team of amateur and professional astronomers to monitor satellites with cameras and observation stations. When Sputnik launched, the network was able to track it.

Whipple was director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics for two decades. An intensely active man, he continued to bike to the center until he was 90, and was named to serve on NASA’s Comet Nucleus Probe mission when he was  92. The license plate on his car read “COMETS.”

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