Touching the Sun

The Parker Solar Probe was launched yesterday to study the sun. Sixty years ago, Eugene Parker launched my scientific career. A young physics research scientist at the University of Chicago, Parker volunteered to be a mentor to encourage science-promise high school students to develop their own science projects. I had the awesome fortune to be his mentee. My project, to develop a fuel cell, may have been outside of his focus on solar wind, and I may have not understood his fascinating story, but I remember both his kindness and scientific attitude that so excited me then and animates me to this day. Of all the things I did in high school, this project stands out in my memory. It did not even work, indeed it was a complete failure, I never got any current from that battery, but with this project I began to learn the “scientific attitude” that remains the core of my work and life.

That was the first time I did real science, not a high school subject, not copying something out of a book. I was doing something new, seeking to discover, to explore, to invent. Parker was patient with this very young and immature scientist, procuring sintered graphite and other materials, asking questions, suggesting things to read, and probing, always probing. I had always wanted to be a scientist, so I do not credit Eugene Parker for putting me on that path, but I do believe that his gentle nudges introduced me to the scientific habits of mind I carry with me today, the spirit of discovery, the thrill of invention.

He is remembered in this spacecraft and in the scientific community for his discovery of the solar wind. He is remembered by me for making science and scientific problem solving — real. I thank you Mr. Parker for giving me your time and your gift. In my work I seek to bring it to all students bathed by our great sun, and by it make problem solving real for them too. Hopefully they will look at the video and fall in love as I did.