Obituary: John Winckler, 84, physicist

  • Article by: KAVITA KUMAR , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2001 - 10:00 PM

His decades of scientific experiments and persistent probing contributed to our understanding of space and to the development of instruments used on spacecraft.

John R. Winckler, a University of Minnesota professor emeritus of physics and expert on auroras and the upper atmosphere, died Tuesday of natural causes at Fairview University Hospital in Minneapolis. He was 84.

In 1989, he made news in the scientific community with his discovery of sprites -- enormous flashes of lightning too quick to see with the naked eye.

In 1996, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences -- one of the highest honors a scientist can receive.

A New Jersey native, Winckler began examining his surroundings as a young boy, observing the organisms that would surface in buckets of pond water.

"He was an incredibly curious man who was interested in everything in the world around him," said Perry Malcolm, a former graduate student of Winckler's who had worked with him for the past 24 years. "He was not interested in prestige and big science. He was just really turned on by the excitement of science, exploration and discovery -- no matter how small the problem."

Winckler joined the physics faculty at the University of Minnesota in 1949.

A pioneer in the use of balloons for scientific study, he worked on teams that launched hundreds of balloons carrying measuring devices into the upper atmosphere.

This led to some exciting discoveries, including a finding that an increase in X-rays corresponds with the flashing lights of the aurora, implying that the aurora has a connection to energized electrons striking the Earth.

With the arrival of the space age, Winckler began to develop detectors to fly on satellites and rockets. He was an adviser to NASA's space exploration program and received numerous grants, including a Guggenheim, for his research.

During the latter part of his life, he focused on the colorful auroras that often light up the Minnesota skies.

"I think he was entranced by its beauty, but he also saw it as a very interesting physics problem," said Paul Kellogg, a retired U of M physics professor.

When conditions were ripe for an aurora, Winckler drove to the university's observatory at Marine on St.-Croix. He would spend all night there collecting data, taking videos and pictures -- trying to find new ways to capture the aurora.

Last year, when the drive became too much for him, he set up an observatory in his attic and placed a camera and photometer on the roof to research and enjoy the lights.

An avid outdoorsman, Winckler loved to go canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which he said was one of the best places in Minnesota to view the aurora. And when he camped, he always faced north.

Survivors include his wife, Louise; daughters Sara Keene of Denver; Kathy of Minneapolis; Marie of Canton, Minn., and Janet of Minneapolis; a son John of Stillwater; four grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. today at Lakewood Cemetery Chapel, 3600 Hennepin Av. S.

Kavita Kumar can be contacted at

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