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Joan Feynman (1927–2020), astrophysicist who explained the aurora borealis

by Linnea Crowther

Joan Feynman was a pioneering astrophysicist who discovered the science behind the aurora borealis and aurora australis.

Science ran in her family

Feynman was the younger sister of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. As her brother’s love for science developed, Feynman caught the bug as well, though her mother discouraged her by telling her, “Women’s brains can’t do science.” Feynman persevered, encouraged by her brother, who taught her science and paid her to be his lab assistant when he was 14 and she was just 5 years old. Feynman’s determination continued as she attended college and received her doctorate in physics from Syracuse University despite meeting sexism from her professors.

Explaining the aurora

Feynman struggled to find work as a scientist after her 1958 graduation, but after several years as a homemaker, she was hired at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. She later worked at other scientific facilities including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. There, she studied the effects of the Earth’s magnetosphere, which led to her discovery of the cause of the aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and aurora australis in the southern hemisphere. Feynman also developed a method to predict sunspot cycles, and her research into high-energy particles in space allowed the space industry to develop hardier satellites.

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Feynman on her mother’s discouragement

“I know she thought she was telling me the inescapable truth. But it was devastating for a little girl to be told that all of her dreams were impossible. And I’ve doubted my abilities ever since.” —from a 2002 essay for Popular Science by Feynman’s son, Charles Hirshberg

Tributes to Joan Feynman

Full obituary: The New York Times

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