Rice space physics pioneer recognized by National Academy

Alexander Dessler awarded Arctowski Medal for contributions to space physics

The National Academy of Sciences today announced that Rice University Professor Emeritus Alexander Dessler has been awarded the prestigious Arctowski Medal in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the study of solar physics and solar terrestrial relationships.

The medal, which is presented every two years, includes a $20,000 personal prize and a $60,000 institutional prize, which Dessler has designated to support Rice research in solar physics and solar terrestrial relationships.

Alexander Dessler at Rice in 1980. "The picture tells a lot," Dessler said. "It was taken while I was still doing some of the work cited in this story, and you can see one of the earliest HP scientific calculators on the desk (my recently retired, beloved slide rule, which had served me faithfully for 35 years, is probably standing by in my desk drawer). The picture behind me was taken by Tom Gold of Cornell and is one of the most dramatic pictures ever of an Apollo launch. The first Space Shuttle had not yet been launched." Credit: Geoffrey Winningham

Dessler, professor emeritus of space physics and astronomy, joined Rice in 1963 and founded the world’s first university department of space science. He chaired the department three times and led its efforts for 12 of the next 20 years. The research program he founded at Rice has produced some 250 Ph.D. scientists, including many leaders in the field.

His innovative contributions helped shape the understanding of how charged particles are controlled by the magnetic fields of the sun, planets and moons in the solar system. In the 1950s Dessler developed a method — still used by space weather forecasters today — for calculating the time it takes disturbances in the solar wind to propagate from the outer edges of Earth’s protective, bubble-like magnetosphere to Earth’s surface.

Many of his predictions about the shape, dynamic nature and interplay between solar and planetary magnetospheres were borne out in later years, first by Earth-orbiting satellites and later by exploratory spacecraft that studied the complex interplay between the sun, the magnetospheres of the planets and a number of planetary moons, including Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io.

Dessler coined the term “heliosphere” to denote the region of space dominated by the sun. His predictions of the shape of the bubble-like magnetic region, which extends far beyond Pluto, “were largely confirmed nearly half a century later when the first interstellar spacecraft, Voyager 1, crossed the termination shock in December 2004 and the heliopause in August 2012,” wrote Tom Hill, Rice professor emeritus of physics and astronomy, in his nomination of Dessler for the Arctowski.

Dessler went on to serve as director of the Space Science Laboratory at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for four years in the 1980s. He retired from Rice in 1993 and served as a research scientist at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory for 14 years before joining Texas A&M University’s Department of Atmospheric Science as an adjunct professor in 2007.

He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union, a member of the American Astronomical Society and a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. His numerous honors include the John Adam Fleming Medal and the William Kaula Award, both from the American Geophysical Union.

The Arctowski Medal was established in 1958 by the bequest of Jane Arctowski in honor of her husband, Henryk Arctowski, a Polish geologist, oceanographer and meteorologist who was one of the first people to overwinter in Antarctica. Henryk and Jane Arctowski were attending a 1939 conference in the United States when Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland. They never returned, lost all their possessions, and Henryk Arctowski accepted a research position at the Smithsonian Institution, where he remained until his death in 1950.


About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.