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john belcher



I was born in Louisiana in 1943, and graduated from Odessa High School in West Texas in 1961. My father was a "roughneck" in the West Texas oilfields, and just finished the 7th grade. Both he and my mother came from large (12 children!) farming families.

The spring and summer of the year I graduated from high school (1961) was the "Freedom Rides" spring and summer. In the fall of 1961, as a freshman at Rice University, I took part in the first large civil rights demonstration in Houston, helping to picket a meeting of the National School Boards Association meeting in downtown Houston.

I am not sure whether I was more scared of the Houston police or of my father if he had found out what I was doing. We were not afraid of being arrested, we were afraid of disappearing and showing up dead in a bayou the next day. If you think that fear was unfounded, take a look at the "Freedom Rides" link above.

Before the demonstration we received training in non-violent protest, and at the demonstration we were all required to wear sports coats and ties. Of the several hundred people taking part in the demonstration, exactly one did not have on a sports coat and tie. He came in the "hippie" uniform of the day. The next day his picture and his picture alone was on the front page of the Houston Chronicle in their story about the protest. This was a valuable lesson for me to learn about the media at the age of 18.

I eventually graduated from// Rice University with a double major in math and physics in 1965, summa cum laude. I then went to Caltech for graduate school. Feynman got the Nobel Prize the first year I was there, and later on, in 1969, Gell-Mann got one as well.

I did my doctoral thesis working with Professor Leverett Davis, Jr., who was an astrophysical theorist who had started off working on the galactic magnetic field. Early on in his career, he came up with an explanation for the observed polarization of starlight.

Davis ' first graduate student was Eugene Parker, who originated the idea of the solar wind, the continuous expansion of the outer atmosphere of the sun at supersonic speeds. Davis was the first to suggest that the interstellar medium near the sun was blown away by the solar wind, with the result that the sun sits in a cavity in the interstellar medium about 100 AU (1 light day) in radius. Inside that cavity, the material is just the supersonically expanding outer atmosphere of the sun; outside that cavity, the material is the interstellar medium. Davis named this cavity the heliosphere.

Davis subsequently became involved in early space missions which measured the interplanetary magnetic field. For my thesis, I did some analysis of the data from one of those missions, Mariner 5, a 1967 mission to Venus, and also some theoretical work on the acceleration of the solar wind.

I came to MIT after my doctorate (1971), to work with Professors Herbert Bridge and Alan Lazarus, who had the plasma probe on board Mariner 5. Just after I came, the Space Plasma Group wrote a proposal for the Voyager mission to Jupiter and Saturn. After reaching these two planets as well as Uranus and Neptune, Voyager is still going strong. In its most recent incarnation, it is refered to as the Voyager Interstellar Mission. In November of 2018, Voyager 2 crossed the heliopause, and the MIT plasma instrument on Voyager 2 is now making measurements in the local interstellar medium.