The National Academy of Science awards prestigious physics medal to Atmospheric Sciences professor

Jan 30, 2015

A Texas A&M professor is to be honored by the National Academy of Sciences with the award of the Arctowski Medal for his notable imagination in framing many of space sciences most basic concepts about the expanding solar atmosphere and the interplanetary magnetic field and their interactions with the magnetic fields of Earth and other planets.

Alexander Dessler, adjunct professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and professor emeritus at Rice University, is being recognized for his outstanding contributions to the study of solar physics and solar terrestrial relationships.

As a teenager in California, Dessler did not set out to be a renowned physicist. “I liked tinkering with cars,” he said, “figuring out how engines work. I think I would have been perfectly happy being an auto mechanic.” He served in the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II as an electronics technician on a destroyer where radar technology captured his imagination.

“I was fascinated by radar, the idea that electromagnetic waves pulsing through the atmosphere allowed you to see objects far away,” he said.

The GI Bill allowed Dessler to attend Caltech for his undergraduate degree in physics. He received his Ph.D. from Duke in 1956, a decade after the Cold War had started and one year before Sputnik was placed in orbit. “Jobs for physicists then weren’t in the universities but in the defense industry,” he said. “My first job was with Lockheed Aircraft.”

“It was a great time to be a space physicist. Aerospace companies receiving government contracts had to spend 1 percent on unrelated research. We could be completely theoretical. We were free to do anything.”

Dessler speaks about how little was known about space before rockets and satellites were able to get out there and make measurements. “At first it seemed that every rocket carrying any instrument in any direction away from Earth made a discovery. We found the Sun’s atmosphere was not stationary; rather it explodes into interplanetary space at speeds of about a million miles per hour. This hot solar gas strikes the magnetic fields of Earth and other planets to distort them and create spectacular phenomena like the Van Allen Radiation belt and the polar aurora. It was a golden age. Discoveries abounded, and money for research was easy to obtain.”

Before Sputnik was launched, only a few people were studying space physics. “Because I had started a year earlier,” he said, “I was one of these few. The field was rich and not crowded. As spacecraft data poured in, there was opportunity to make imaginative suggestions, that, when correct, were useful in guiding future research. When I came up with an idea on what was going on, I often got to name features that were needed to understand the phenomenon that had been observed. Overall, it was fun and unimaginably rewarding. I had been incredibly lucky to have been born at the right time and to have made a number of coin-flip choices that mostly came up heads,” he said.

Dessler will be honored in a ceremony on Sunday, April 26, during the National Academy of Sciences' 152nd annual meeting.

For more information about the award, see these sites.
National Academy of Science
Rice University