Dear Students and Families: Welcome to the first weekend of March! It’s hard to believe we’ve already been on campus for a full month. I hope that despite the unusual nature of this semester, you are finding ways to enjoy…
Late Alumna Helped Advance Satellite Technology, Understanding of the Sun, Women in Science
Astrophysicist Joan Feynman G’58 was a pioneer in solar physics. Her work helped explain the cycles of sunspots, and her insights on high-energy particles helped shape satellite technology. Feynman died on July 22 at 93.
Feynman’s work accurately described the functions of solar activity and its affects on the Earth’s atmosphere. While working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1985, Feynman proved that solar particles penetrating Earth’s magnetosphere led to auroras. Her insights contributed to the design of spacecraft and satellites that can operate longer despite being exposed to high energy particles.
Her love of science began at age 5. “I discovered science at home,” Feynman said in 2019. “My brother showed me all kinds of neat things.” Feynman’s older brother woke up Feynman in the middle of the night at one point and brought her to a nearby golf course to observe an aurora, a huge green light that moved across the sky. “That was the first aurora I ever saw,” said Feynman. She said she had a close bond with her brother as kids.
Her older brother was Richard Feynman, who would also go onto become a scientist and Nobel laureate. Richard’s research also helped link the faulty o-rings that led to the Challenger shuttle explosion in 1986. Feynman was wary of competing with her brother. In her essays “A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention” (2013), she explained their agreement. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t want us to compete, so let’s divide up physics between us,’” she wrote. “‘I’ll take auroras and you take the rest of the universe.’ And he said, OK!” Richard died in 1988.
Feynman completed an undergraduate degree at Oberlin College in 1948 and later earned a doctorate in physics from Syracuse in 1958. In 2000, she was awarded NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Medal for “pioneering contribution to the study of solar causes of geomagnetic and climate disturbances.”
Feynman’s work helped scientists better understand how the sun’s particles impact objects as they move through interstellar space. The constant flow of energy from the sun’s atmosphere, known as the solar wind, can adversely effect systems on ships and satellites without proper planning, said Feynman. “In the early days they had to over design everything and not get as much information as they would now,” she said. Her work is still the foundational basis for spacecraft design. Feynman’s observations,combined with other researchers about solar weather, now allow reasonable predictions to be made about the environment spacecraft operate in. The process took observing solar activity for long enough to determine what could come next, even in the chaotic environment of a star. “It involved an enormous amount of data and the analysis of it.”
Feynman said becoming a scientist was driven by the desire to raise a family independently. As a teenager, she decided to pursue roles that were outside the accepted roles women at the time, like secretarial work or teaching grammar school. “So that, besides it’s much more fun, is why I went into science.” Feynman described science as a game. “What you do is watch something in nature. It’s all around here, it’s a million things to watch,” she said. “And then you notice something. And you think, ‘why is that?’”
Feynman said growing up, she was often made to feel she was in the wrong place as a woman in science. She said she was pleased at two women winning Nobel prizes in science (Donna Strickland in physics and Frances Arnold in chemistry) in 2019. “Now it is no longer in the wrong place,” she said.