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Student with lofty goals gets encouragement from Goldwater Scholarship

The concept of building a better mousetrap has fueled American ingenuity and innovation for two centuries. What Jeffrey Parker has in mind harkens back to that tradition, even though his aspirations are far more in tune with the 21st century. Parker, a physics and astronomy major at Whitman, wants to help build a better spacecraft, one capable of achieving "relativistic speeds" and making interstellar travel feasible.

As part of their advanced physics class Jeffrey Parker, left, Stewart Matthiesen, and Brent Bryan constructed and installed a radio telescope on the roof of the science building. Parker, a junior who recently received a Goldwater Scholarship, says the telescope will contribute to Whitman’s radio-astronomy studies in the years ahead.
While Parker may have his sights set high, he received a bit of encouragement recently when he was awarded a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship. A junior from West Linn, Oregon, Parker is one of 309 students from around the country awarded the scholarship, intended to encourage outstanding students in their pursuit of careers in science, engineering, and mathematics. He receives a $7,500 award to help defray the cost of his senior year. Parker, who transferred to Whitman because of its astronomy program, plans a career researching and developing new designs for spacecraft engines. "My goal is to incor-porate particle physics and special relativity to build an engine capable of sending spacecrafts to systems outside our solar system. Currently I'm studying astrophysics with an emphasis on mechanics."

Last summer, Parker assisted with a research project at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. "My responsibility was to design a program that would analyze any spiral galaxy's data in a number of ways and output its luminosity function, among other useful things," Parker said. "The results of our study are very encouraging. They tend to support most theories of spiral galaxy mechanics, while challenging other theories. This project has been exciting because it has had a real impact on an area of astronomy and astrophysics."

Parker, who plans to continue his post-Whitman studies in astronautical engineering, sees a "strong potential" for humans to send probes to other solar systems by the middle of the 21st century. Given the great distances involved, the key to interstellar travel is development of spacecraft capable of achieving extremely high speeds, he said. That would cut travel times to the nearest stars to about 10 years.

While Parker must wait a few years to concentrate his studies on building a better spacecraft, he and two classmates are finishing construction this week of Whitman's first-ever radio telescope. As part of their advanced physics class, Parker and seniors Stewart Matthiesen and Brent Bryan have converted a 12-foot satellite television dish into an instrument capable of receiving radio signals from outside the Earth's atmosphere.

"We plan to observe the sun and strong radio-emitting galaxies," Parker said. "Our first goal is to monitor the total radio influx coming from a small angle of the sky."

The radio telescope will serve as the foundation for radio-astronomy studies at Whitman, Parker said, and with future modifications, the telescope should have the capacity to map the entire sky. "This would essentially show a map of the expanding universe. We have very high hopes for the success of our telescope."

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