Theodore G. Northrop, a former head of theoretical physics for NASA and a 25-year resident of Wellfleet, died suddenly at Pleasant Bay Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Brewster on August 19, 2023. He was 98.
Northrop’s work informed some of the 20th century’s most significant innovations in space physics.
The son of Paul Allen Northrop and Vivian Grace Northrop, Ted was born on Dec. 15, 1924 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he also grew up. His father, head of the physics department at Vassar College, also worked during World War II at the Special Alloy Metals Laboratory at Columbia University as part of the Manhattan Project.
Ted attended the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., graduating in 1941. He earned a B.S. in physics from Yale University in 1944. In 1943, as he recounted in a video made for the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, Ted joined the Navy under terms that allowed him to finish his degree before reporting for duty.
Immediately after graduating from Yale, he attended the Midshipmen’s School at Columbia before training at the radar schools at Harvard and M.I.T. He was promoted to ensign and later held the rank of lieutenant JG.
Ted served in the Pacific in the First Amphibious Naval Group as a radar operator on the command ship U.S.S. Blue Ridge. En route from San Francisco to Hawaii, Ted learned that the atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan and realized that his father had worked on their development.
With the war over, the Blue Ridge traveled up and down the Chinese coast transporting Nationalist Chinese troops. That experience, he said in the video, “was my introduction to poverty and disease.”
In the summer of 1946, the Blue Ridge was scheduled to carry “military brass to the nuclear test site at the Bikini Atoll,” Ted said. There were two explosions two weeks apart, one aerial and the other underwater. When he was asked what he learned from his Navy experience, he replied, “You learn what interests you is what bothers you most not to understand.”
After his discharge from the service, Ted earned a master’s degree in biological science from Cornell University in 1949 and a Ph.D. in physics from Iowa State University in1953. He then worked as an instructor at Yale for a year.
Ted’s career was primarily as a theoretical physicist working in plasma and space physics. He began at the Livermore Labs in California in the Plasma Theory Group, where he worked on controlled fusion with Edward Teller, the director, who was known as the father of the hydrogen bomb.
Teller asked Ted a question about charged particles early in their collaborative work together. Ted’s answer led to his being the primary author on an influential paper, “Stability of the Adiabatic Motion of Charged Particles in the Earth’s Field,” which he published in Physics Review in 1960 with Teller.
Ted moved to a position at Berkeley, doing research in its Theory Group and teaching as an adjunct physics professor for six years.
In 1965, Ted moved to the Goddard Space Flight Center, a NASA scientific lab in Greenbelt, Md. He also taught physics at the University of Maryland. Ted spent the remainder of his career at Goddard studying space physics.
One of his notable contributions was determining the age of Saturn’s rings by studying particle activity within them. He was also the lead researcher in numerous experiments facilitated by NASA satellite launches and space flights. He retired in 1998.
“A theorist looks at what is going on and says: What causes this? Why does this happen and how does it happen?” he told the Cape Cod Times. “You listen to mysteries. You think about the problem, and you don’t have an answer; you stay exposed to the problem and eventually you get an epiphany.”
One of his epiphanies was to purchase a summer home in Wellfleet in 1977, where he relocated year-round upon his retirement. He had first come to Wellfleet on a family vacation when he was 12. “I like the openness and the woods, the ponds and the National Seashore,” he said in 2001.
Ted was a lifelong swimmer and encouraged others to “keep moving.” He loved the Wellfleet ponds and early in his retirement participated in the National Seashore Adopt-A-Pond program. He was known for his high energy, always analyzing problems and attempting to solve them.
One of his worries, he said in the Times interview, concerned the disconnect between the public and the sciences. “I don’t think we’re going to run out of good scientists,” he said. “The danger comes from the man on the street not having any quantitative thinking ability.”
But that worry did not slow him down. He was healthy enough to renew his driver’s license at the age of 98.
Ted is survived by his partner of 30 years, Beatrice Scribner of West Yarmouth; his five children, Tom Northrop and partner Wilaiwan of Buckeye, Ariz., Amy Russell and husband Clark of Indianapolis, Jeff Northrop and wife Sandra Taylor of Edmonton, Alberta, Kelly Northrop and husband Richard Bolt of Dublin, Ireland, and Lisa Northrop and husband Kevin Papa of New York City; one grandson, Jeffrey Thomas “JT” Turner of Indianapolis; and his sister, Elizabeth Jockusch and husband Carl of Urbana, Ill.
In addition to his parents, Ted was preceded in death by a sister, Lucille Carter, and his brother, John Northrop.
Private services in Wellfleet are planned for the summer.