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Thompson, Philip Duncan



  • Existence: 1922-1994

Philip Duncan Thompson was an internationally known theoretician in atmospheric dynamics, numerical weather prediction, and turbulence. He passed away 3 September in Boulder after a 34-year NCAR career. Appointed the first associate director of NCAR by Walt Roberts (the first director of NCAR and president of UCAR), Phil worked with Walt in the early 1960s to recruit the best minds of modern atmospheric science to the newly created center. When he joined NCAR, Phil brought with him scientific expertise in the broad range of atmospheric science and management experience as project leader at several major research centers in the United States and abroad. These included Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study, the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit of the the Air Force's Cambridge Research Center, and the International Institute of Meteorology at the University of Stockholm, Sweden. The last was Phil's final active duty assignment as a colonel in the Air Force before he officially retired and moved to Boulder and NCAR. As the first director of the Laboratory of Atmospheric Science, which encompassed the research interests of several current NCAR divisions, Phil was able to attract many outstanding atmospheric scientists to join or visit NCAR. He also was the first director of the Advanced Study Program, which has served to increase interactions between NCAR and the university community through postdoctoral fellowships and visitor programs and to foster interdisciplinary research on unsolved problems of critical importance. Among Phil's many achievements during his NCAR career was one unique to his research that significantly influenced the work of many other outstanding scientists. In the words of Walt Roberts, "One of NCAR's main objectives is to conduct basic research in areas where a detailed understanding of atmospheric processes demands the integration of research in a wide variety of disciplines. Phil, through work in turbulence theory, was an ideal integrator. He is one of a very few scientists who first recognized that large-scale atmospheric motions possess the characteristics of turbulence and, thus, that there is an inherent limit in predicting the atmosphere in advance." According to a written tribute composed by a group of Phil's NCAR colleagues, Phil, a quiet, reserved man, influenced many an NCAR scientist to tackle some of the most daunting problems in atmospheric research. "While Phil delved into the hydrodynamic theory of atmospheric turbulence in his own style, as attested by his publications, he was equally influential in attracting many able scientists to NCAR to work on the many aspects of atmospheric turbulence. Unique efforts in uncovering the role of turbulence in all scales of atmospheric motions by a large number of competent NCAR scientists, present and past, including Chuck Leith, Douglas Lilly, and Jim Deardorff, who have all received the Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Award of the American Meteorological Society [AMS], would not have materialized without the subtle and friendly persuasion of Philip Thompson." "Phil was my first boss at NCAR," recalls Lilly, now a professor in the School of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. "Although we were in somewhat different fields, Phil influenced me more on a personal-example level than on anything technical. I went to Phil when I couldn't figure something out; sometimes he couldn't either. But if he thought the theory was interesting, he thought it was worth a good try. Phil was a shy and gentle person, but one of the smartest people I have ever known." Within the past five years, Phil, a senior scientist at NCAR since 1975, completed a manuscript which demonstrated his knack for getting to the essence of how the global-scale motion system behaves by showing that many statistics of the general circulation can be reproduced by a relatively simple atmospheric model. Quoting again from the tribute of his NCAR colleagues, "During 1988 alone, Phil (at age 66) published five sound, scientific papers in referenced journals. His determination to crack one of the most difficult problems of atmospheric science has been a silent source of admiration [from] his contemporaries." During his more-than-a-half-century career, Phil received a number of awards, including the U.S. military's Legion of Merit Award in 1957. He and Norman Phillips received the AMS's Meisinger Award in 1959 "for their theoretical and applied research in the field of numerical weather prediction." Phil served as president of the AMS in 1964-65. An Illinois native, he earned a bachelor's degree in physical science at the University of Chicago and a doctorate in meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While at NCAR, he was also an adjunct professor in the Astrophysics Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the late 1960s.
Author: Joan  Vandiver Frisch
"NCAR Mourns Death of its First Associate Director, Philip Thompson." NCAR Staff Notes. September 1994. (accessed 2/3/2010).

Found in 3 Collections and/or Records:

Global Atmospheric Research Programme Atlantic Tropical Experiment (GATE) Records

Identifier: 04-03-02-GATE
Scope and Contents The GARP Atlantic Tropical Experiment (GATE) was a large and complex international scientific experiment designed to gain an increased understanding of the atmosphere and causes of climatic variation and change. GATE sought to learn how cloud clusters in the tropic transformed and redistributed energy within the atmosphere, knowledge that was needed for the development of numerical models for long-range weather prediction and for assessing the long-term effects of pollutants on the...

Philip Duncan Thompson Papers

Identifier:  - 06-PDT
Scope and Contents These papers document the career of Philip Duncan Thompson (1922-1994), whose research focused on the large-scale dynamics of the atmosphere, numerical weather prediction, and the statistical theory of hydrodynamic turbulence. The materials cover his career as a regular officer in the United States Air Force in meteorology beginning in World War II, continuing at the Institute for Advanced Study's Electronic Computer Project, the Air Force Cambridge Research Labs, the Joint Numerical Weather...

Tropical Wind, Energy Conversion, and Reference Level Experiment (TWERLE) Records

Identifier:  - 04-TWERLE
Scope and Contents The Tropical Wind, Energy Conversion, and Reference Level Experiment, or TWERLE, was sponsored by the Goddard Space Flight Center (NASA) and designed and implemented by NCAR and the University of Wisconsin. TWERLE was an intensive program of meteorological observations made from superpressure balloons orbiting the earth at the 150mb density level. The balloons were tracked and monitored by the Nimbus-6 satellite, providing data which increased understanding of atmospheric circulation. Crew...