November 5, 1906–August 30, 2004
BY GEORGE FIELD
WHEN HALLEY’S COMET APPROACHED THE Sun in 1910, Fred Whipple was three years old. When it approached again in 1986, he was 79. By then Fred had a brilliant career as an astronomer and scientific administrator behind him. Over the course of those years he had become the world’s leading authority on the nature of comets. His pair of papers on the subject in 1950-1951 had become classics, and the model of comets that they propounded was fully confirmed by space probes that were sent to study Halley’s comet in 1986.
I first met Fred in 1955 when I arrived at the Harvard College Observatory (HCO) as a postdoctoral fellow. At that time he was busy organizing the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), so I did not get to know him well. When I returned to Harvard in 1972, we met in his office, surrounded by models of astronomical instruments that he had designed and built. At that time I was a candidate for the directorship of HCO, which is located in the same group of buildings as SAO, and Fred welcomed me graciously.
The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory was a big institution, the home of many diverse astronomical projects,