Fredrick Scarf,The Man Who, in 1980, Predicted Meteors would arrive

Posted on Jan 22, 2013

3 decades ago, I was a struggling composer, interested in the oddest things. From Paleontology to Plasma Physics (from Ancient Greek: φύσις physis “nature”), to reading and retaining vast quantities of classical Greco Roman material, Seneca, Pliny the Elder, and Cicero… the good stuff. I also had a keen interest in space, comets,asteroids and meteors.Like most kids I suppose.

One day, I spied a beautiful young lady staring at me. She was a lithe brunnete with amazing grey green cat eyes. We fell madly and promptly in love, and I learned,beneath her external beauty lay a keen intellect. We were both 20 years old and the world was indeed our oyster. In time, I met her father, and we took a liking to each other. Soon her mother was cooking dinners and I became , by no fault of my own, a member of the Scarf salon of San Fernando Valley.   Fredrick and I had an odd first conversation..We were introduced, and proceeded to speak of small matters, the weather, Carter, the traffic, and all of a sudden, I saw a paper in his hands, an acedemic paper on plasma physics ! We forgot the traffic and immediately began a lively  discussion regarding things not of this earth, the variants of plasma, and interplnartary medium ( cosmic dust, hot plasma, dust), the great comet of 1680, the comets of 1531 and 1533, the molecular make up of comets, and outer space exploration and expectation.. I had no idea I was in conversation with America’s leading space theorist, but I realized it minutes into our exchange.Now for a little background on space plasma.

The term “interplanetary” appears to have been first used in print in 1691 by the scientist Robert Boyle: “The air is different from the æther (or vacuum) in the… interplanetary spaces” Boyle Hist. Air.

The notion that space is considered to be a vacuum filled with an “aether“, or just a cold, dark vacuum continued up until the 1950s (see below).

In 1898, American astronomer Charles Augustus Young wrote: “Inter-planetary space is a vacuum, far more perfect than anything we can produce by artificial means…” (The Elements of Astronomy, Charles Augustus Young, 1898).

Since plasma is the “fluid glue” in which the planets and comets and asteroids adhere to, the plasma is also super conductive, and is affected by gravity and CME’s ( Coronal Mass Eruptions, or for the rest of us, sun tantrums) Fredrick, an intuitive man if ever one was born, sensed my intense interest in such celestial mattersOver the next couple of months,he took me under his wing, and taught me things about the heavens I thought no earthly human could know. His kindness to me, and his patience, are lessons I still treasure. And class, he had more of that then most men on this planet.

One day,I went to see his daughter and after taking her to our favorite Thai joint, I dropped her off and snuck into Fredrick’s study for a chat. Fredrick was working on his usual scholarly pursuits, this time trying to extrapolate where life would be found, if it was to be found in outer space…a postulate he questioned..I interrupted him and exclaimed that we might someday inject life into other planets/solar systems, like a hyperdermic needle injects antibiotics into the bloodstream. Fredrick kept quiet, and I thought I had blundered and said something stupid again, a fault that I am guilty of even today. A month later, Fredrick called me into his study, and showed me a paper. He was smiling, and obviously enjoying the moment. He told me that evening that I had “innocently” stumbled upon a question worthy of great contemplation, and urged me to become a scholar in plasma physics. He was not joking I found out. The 11 page paper explained in detail that my idea was particularly meritious and he planned, at some point, to “get it to the right people” I was humbled to see this great human being, taking the time to work out a complex therum for his daughers beau.I was also amazed at just how well he understood what I, a teenager with little in the way of writing technical papers on lofty subjects, was trying to say. But Fredrick “got” people. An affable and charming man,he could also out think everyone he met. You see , Fredrick was a genius in the truest form.

Fredrick built the Voyager. And much more….Fredrick explored Halleys comet..I kid you not. Fredrick believed we would see non man made space debris hitting earth within 40 years,and this prediction was made in 1980. He was casual in his delivery, but serious. He said, Thomas, there is an asteroid belt, and a better chance than not that we have ” cosmic events” Most likely, he explained, the sea would be the delivery point. But, he added, population centers would, in his opinion, be affected. He said, several years later, the greatest part of Star Wars, a program developed by Reagan, was the potential to deflect, or push, asteroids out of our path. In light of recent events, it seems Dr.Scarf knew what he was talking about.

Fredrick was one of the few men responsible for fast track developments in the US Space program. His Plasma Antennae are still, over 20 years after his passing, viable and groundbreaking. I have enclosed the obituary of this true hero of America, a man who peered into the heavens and came back with answers, answers we are only now beginning to understand. Fredrick’s daughter, still a close and trusted friend has sent me two pictures today, unseen by the public until this post. The pictures show both a 1/25 model of the Voyager and Dr. Scarf’s plasma antennae…..Before viewing these pictures, unseen until today, please read the obituary of America’s comet man Fredrick Scarf. A special thank you to Elizabeth , his amazing daughter and still my dearest of friends, for giving me the right to present your father’s pictures.

Obituaries : Frederick L. Scarf; Space Scientist at TRW Had a Worldwide Impact

July 20, 1988|LEE DYE | Times Science Writer
    • German Woodcut Great Comet

Frederick L. Scarf, a theoretical physicist who played a major role with nearly every space agency in the world, has died in Moscow after collapsing last week during an international space meeting there.

Scarf, 57, chief scientist for space research and technology at TRW (Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge) in Redondo Beach, was widely regarded as the world’s leading expert in a field of profound importance to space research–the study of the plasma waves that move through the subatomic particles, gas and solar wind of the interplanetary medium.

Friends who were with him said he appeared to have been in perfect health before he collapsed at Moscow’s Space Research Institute on July 12. He was rushed to a Moscow hospital with what appeared to have been a brain tumor, although no official cause of death has been announced.

His wife, Mimi, of Sherman Oaks, flew to Moscow and was there when he died Sunday.

Planning Missions

Scarf was in Moscow to help plan future missions in the Soviet space program, in which he had been involved for more than a decade. He was one of the lead scientists in the twin missions to the Martian moon of Phobos that the Soviet Union launched earlier this month, and he was to have played a similar role in that country’s ambitious exploration of Mars during the years ahead.

Scarf was also involved in several European programs, including the European Space Agency’s mission to Halley’s Comet three years ago, and he served in a key role with the Japanese space program. In addition, he was involved in numerous U.S. space projects, including serving as principal investigator for plasma wave experiments on Pioneers 8 and 9, Voyagers 1 and 2, and the Pioneer/Venus Orbiter.

As a scientist, Scarf came along at just the right moment, when the tools were first being put into space that could unlock secrets that had long puzzled physicists. Like the few others who understood his field, Scarf wondered what effect a celestial body like the Earth had on space as it moved through it.

He helped design the instruments that measured that effect, demonstrating something that many had theorized but none had been able to prove. As the Earth, or any other large body, moves through space it is preceded by a “bowshock,” a plasma wave pushed by the planet through space, just as the bow of a boat pushes through the water.

Detected by Antennas

The antennas that Scarf put on numerous spacecraft detected that effect. Electrically charged particles in space bombarded the craft, and the number of “hits” rose dramatically as the spacecraft passed through the wave of increasingly dense particles.

Scarf made a recording of the sounds the particles made as they hit the antennas. To almost anyone else, it sounded like static, rapidly changing in pitch and frequency as the spacecraft passed through the wave. But to Scarf, it was music, which he once described as sounding like a choir of birds.

As gregarious as he was scholarly, Scarf delighted in working his way around bureaucratic roadblocks. He was one of five U.S. scientists who continued working with the Soviet space program even after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was prohibited from direct participation. Scarf went to work part time for UCLA and used that academic tie to get a grant from NASA to continue his work with the Soviets.

Dr Scharf’s fururistic Plasma Antennae 1983