Walter M. Elsasser

National Medal of Science

Physical Sciences

For his fundamental and lasting contributions to physics, meteorology, and geophysics in establishing quantum mechanics, atmospheric radiation transfer, planetary magnetism and plate tectonics.

For his fundamental and lasting contributions to physics, meteorology, and geophysics in establishing quantum mechanics, atmospheric radiation transfer, planetary magnetism and plate tectonics.

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Birth
March 20, 1904
Age Awarded
83
Country of Birth
Germany
Key Contributions
Geodynamo Theory; Mathematical Explanation For Earth'S Magnetic Field
Awarded by
Ronald Wilson Reagan
Education
University of Gottingen
Areas of Impact
Theory & Foundations
Affiliations
Johns Hopkins University
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Until the mid-1940s, scientists struggled to understand the origin of the earth’s magnetic field. The work of German-born physicist Walter Elsasser helped unlock the mystery.

Elsasser’s “dynamo theory’’ suggested that rotating fluid within the earth’s core essentially was responsible for producing the magnetic field. Elsasser also pioneered studies of the magnetic orientation of minerals in rocks to probe the history of earth’s magnetic field.

His research also helped to establish theories on plate tectonics and continental drift, which sought to explain the shifting of continents across the earth, as well as electron scattering.

Elsasser earned a doctorate in quantum mechanics from the University of Gottingen in 1927, and during his long career held positions at several universities, including Princeton, Johns Hopkins and the California Institute of Technology. He became a United States citizen in 1940 and during World War II worked for the U.S. Signal Corps, where his work included research on electronics and the meteorological effects of radar use.

Elsasser, whose work also involved research in meteorology, biology and oceanography, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1957.

By Robert Warren

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