Press Release

Peter Meyer, cosmic-ray physicist, 1920-2002

By SpaceRef Editor
March 8, 2002
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University of Chicago Professor Emeritus Peter Meyer, who
conducted pioneering studies on cosmic rays, mysterious particles
that rain down on Earth continuously from outer space, died Thursday,
March 7, 2002, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago,
following a stroke. He was 82.

“He was a pioneer in studies of the primary cosmic
radiation,” said Roger Hildebrand, the Samuel K. Allison
Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics at the University
of Chicago. “He really played a very important role in our
understanding of cosmic rays and he was just a delightful colleague.”

During a career that spanned half a century, Meyer sent his
scientific instruments into the stratosphere aboard more than 100
balloons and into space on several satellites and the space shuttle.
The first balloons were just eight feet across and were launched from
the University’s athletic field.

“Addressed postcards would be attached to the payloads, and
usually a few days later would be returned by some farmer somewhere
in Indiana or downstate Illinois who might have found the apparatus
coming down on his fields,” said Dietrich Muller, a Professor in
Physics at the University of Chicago and a close colleague of Meyer’s.

In the early 1960s, Meyer and his student Rochus Vogt
discovered electrons in cosmic rays. A few years later, he
discovered, together with his colleague Roger Hildebrand, that even
such rare particles as positrons, which are not normally found in
terrestrial matter, are part of the cosmic radiation.

Meyer’s greatest asset was his infectious joy for doing
physics, said Rochus Vogt, the R. Stanton Distinguished Service
Professor in Physics at the California Institute of Technology.

“I was always amazed at how much this man enjoyed doing his
work, his physics,” said Vogt, who was Meyer’s first Ph.D. student at
the University of Chicago. Among Meyer’s other students were NASA
astronaut John Grunsfeld, who is payload commander of this week’s
mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Peter was not only a skillful and distinguished physicist. He also
was a very cultured person,” Vogt said. “He played the cello. He was
very fond of music. He was extensively read. He was simply a
tremendous person to be around.”

Meyer came to the University in 1953 to begin collaborating
with the late John Simpson on the study of cosmic rays using
instruments flown aboard aircraft and balloons.

“What they were doing then was exploring the mysterious
variations of the cosmic-ray intensity, which was clearly connected
to solar activity, but it wasn’t clear how,” said Eugene Parker, the
S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor in Physics at the
University of Chicago.

Simpson and Meyer studied in quantitative detail how the
waxing and waning of the sunspot cycle influenced all but the highest
energy cosmic rays. “They just began to put the whole picture
together,” Parker said.

Meyer also collaborated with Simpson on the University of
Chicago’s first space instrument, which flew aboard Pioneer II in
1958. Their collaboration continued with additional instruments in
the late 1950s and early 1960s aboard the Pioneer V and Explorer VI
satellites. With the instrument on Pioneer V, the first probe to
visit Venus, they explored the variation of the cosmic-ray intensity
through space and time in response to the varying magnetic activity
(sunspots and flares) of the sun.

For yet another mission, Meyer built a particle detector that
NASA launched into space aboard the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory
in 1968. The 14-pound detector operated on only 2 1/2 watts of
power-one-tenth that of an ordinary 25-watt light blub-while
collecting data on radiation in interplanetary space.

Meyer built another radiation detector that was launched into
space in 1978 aboard the International Sun-Earth Explorer spacecraft.
From a vantage point far above the Earth’s magnetic field, the
instrument sent back to the University a nearly uninterrupted stream
of information about electrically charged particles that travel in
space between the Earth and the sun. Meyer and his fellow scientists
also used the instrument to study electrons from the galaxy, neutrons
from the sun, and the mysterious pulses of electrons from Jupiter and
their interactions with the interplanetary magnetic field.

To study particles of very high energy, Meyer relied on
polyethylene balloons measuring 300 feet across to launch instruments
weighing as much as several tons from special facilities in Texas,
Hawaii, North and South Dakota and from the Arctic Circle in
Manitoba, Canada.

“The measurements greatly contributed to the understanding of
the origin of cosmic rays, which had been a mystery for a long time,
and the mechanisms by which these particles propagate between the
stars of our galaxy,” Muller said.

Meyer’s cosmic-ray research culminated with an experiment
nicknamed the “Chicago Egg”

because of its shape and origin at the University of Chicago. Meyer’s
instrument measured 9 feet in diameter and 12 feet high, weighed 2
1/2 tons and cost $10 million. Designed by Meyer and colleague
Dietrich Muller, the instrument flew aboard the space shuttle
Challenger in 1985. The data from that mission remain the most
detailed ever obtained on the composition of cosmic rays at extreme
energies, Muller said.

Meyer was born in Berlin, Germany, on Jan. 6, 1920. He earned
his Diplom-Ingenieur at the Technical University in Berlin in 1942,
where Hans Geiger, the inventor of the Geiger counter, was among his
teachers. “He was not permitted to complete his studies with a Ph.D.
because of the race laws in Nazi Germany,” Muller said.

Meyer eventually received his Ph.D. at the University of
Gottingen in 1948, where he studied under Wolfgang Paul, who would
receive the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1989. Meyer served on the
teaching staff at the University of Gottingen from 1945 to 1950.

Meyer was a fellow of England’s Cambridge University, where
he worked in the Cavendish Laboratory, known among scientists as the
cradle of nuclear physics, in 1949 and 1950. Meyer also served as a
staff member at the Max-Planck Institute for Physics from 1950 to
1953, before migrating to the United States.

In 1953 Meyer landed a position as a research associate in the
Institute for Nuclear Studies at the Univeristy of Chicago. He joined
the faculty of the University’s Department of Physics as an Assistant
Professor in 1956. He became Associate Professor in 1962 and
Professor in 1965.

From 1978 until 1983, Meyer served as director of the Enrico
Fermi Institute, and from 1986 to 1989 as chairman of the Department
of Physics. He was named Professor Emeritus in 1990.

Meyer received the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester
Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching from the
University of Chicago in 1971. He was elected a foreign member of
Germany’s Max-Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics in 1973.
He was awarded the Alexander Von Humbolt Award for Senior U.S.
Scientists in 1984, and he was elected to the National Academy of
Sciences in 1989.

Meyer is survived by his second wife, Patricia Spear of
Chicago and the Guy and Anne Youmans Professor and Chair of
Microbiology-Microimmunology at Northwestern University Medical
School; by two sons, Stephan Meyer of Chicago’s Hyde Park
neighborhood and a Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the
University of Chicago, and Andreas Meyer of Portsmouth, New
Hampshire; and by two grandchildren, Samantha Meyer and Niels Meyer
of Chicago. Meyer’s first wife, Luise Meyer-Schutzmeister, a nuclear
physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, died in 1981.

Arrangements for a memorial service are pending. The family
requests that in lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Meyer’s
memory to fund the Luise Meyer-Schutzmeister Award to support the
work of women who are studying for the Ph.D. in physics. Checks
should be sent to the Association for the Women in Science
Educational Fund, care of Barbara Filner, 7008 Richard Drive,
Bethesda, MD 20817.

SpaceRef staff editor.