April 11, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 13

current issue
archive / search

    Physicist Meyer dies at age 82

    Peter Meyer, Professor Emeritus in Physics, who conducted pioneering studies on cosmic rays, the mysterious particles that rain down on Earth continuously from outer space, died Thursday, March 7, following a stroke. He was 82.

    “He was a pioneer in studies of the primary cosmic radiation,” said Roger Hildebrand, the Samuel Allison Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics and the College. “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 a space shuttle mission.

    In the early 1960s, Meyer and his student Rochus Vogt discovered electrons in cosmic rays. A few years later, he discovered, together with 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 Vogt, the R. Stanton distinguished service professor in physics at the California Institute of Technology.

    “I always was 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. Among Meyer’s other students were NASA astronaut John Grunsfeld (S.M., ’84; Ph.D., ’88), who was payload commander of the recent mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

    Meyer came to the University in 1953 to begin collaborating with the late John Simpson, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor in Physics and the College, 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 Emeritus in Physics and the College.

    Simpson and Meyer studied in quantitative detail how the waxing and waning of the sunspot cycle influenced all but the highest energy cosmic rays. Meyer and Simpson also worked together on the University’s first space instrument, which flew aboard Pioneer II in 1958. They continued to collaborate on additional space-probe instruments throughout the early 1960s.

    To study particles of very high energy, Meyer relied on polyethylene balloons measuring 300 feet across to launch instruments 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 propa-gate between the stars of our galaxy,” said Dietrich M¸ller, Professor in Physics and the College.

    Meyer’s cosmic-ray research culminated with an experiment nicknamed the “Chicago Egg” because of its shape and origin at the University. The instrument measured 9 feet in diameter and 12 feet high, weighed 2 1/2 tons and cost $10 million. Designed by Meyer and M¸ller, the instrument flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1985.

    Meyer was born Jan. 6, 1920, in Berlin, Germany. He earned his Diplom-Ingenieur at the Technical University in Berlin in 1942, and received his Ph.D. at the University of G–ttingen in 1948. He worked at the University of G–ttingen, Cambridge University and the Max-Planck Institute for Physics before migrating to the United States.

    In 1953, he landed a position as a Research Associate in the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University, and in 1956, he joined the Physics faculty as an Assistant Professor.

    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 is survived by his second wife, Patricia Spear of Chicago, who is the Guy and Anne Youmans professor and chair of microbiology-microimmunology at Northwestern University Medical School; two sons, Stephan Meyer, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics and the College, and Andreas Meyer of Portsmouth, N.H.; and two grandchildren, Samantha Meyer and Niels Meyer of Chicago. His first wife, Luise Meyer-Schutzmeister, a nuclear physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, died in 1981.

    A memorial service is scheduled for 1:30 p.m, Saturday, May 11, at the Quadrangle Club, 1155 E. 57th St. A reception will follow.