October 21, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 4

Rene Marcou, recipient of the first sponsored research funding at BC.


BC's Space Pioneers

University's Institute for Space Research is the legacy of one eccentric, hard-working Frenchman

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Second in a series of profiles on outstanding Boston College researchers.

On Nov. 1, 1954, a cigar-smoking Boston College mathematician with an obsession for numbers, Rene Marcou, was awarded an Air Force grant to develop algorithms for analyzing data collected by early rockets shot into the ionosphere.

The check for $4,966.24 was the first government sponsored research funding ever to come to Boston College.

In the 50 years since, the Institute for Scientific Research that began with the late Prof. Marcou, who died in 1996 at age 90, has received nearly $90 million for work that has helped put men on the moon, strengthen America's defenses, and keep planes and ships on course.

Sponsored research in general has become a large-scale enterprise at Boston College, which took in a university-record $42 million in grant funding in the past fiscal year alone.

The 43-person ISR lab tucked in St. Clement's Hall develops mathematical formulae used in analyzing the ionosphere, a layer of the atmosphere 60 to 2,000 kilometers up that is charged by solar radiation and reflects radio waves to distant places on Earth.

The research, done largely for the government, has applications in satellite communications and global-positioning systems that guide aircraft. This past fiscal year, the ISR took in nearly $4.9 million in research funding.

"Everything that impacts communications takes place in the ionosphere," said Director Leo Power '56 MA '64 MBA '72, who began with the research lab two years after Sputnik and has remained through the Space Race to the current era of cell phones and home satellite dishes.

During the Cold War the researchers studied disturbances to the ionosphere caused by atomic testing, he said. Now they focus on those caused by natural phenomena, like space weather, or solar storms, or the auroras created when solar energy interacts with the Earth's magnetic field.

In July, Senior Research Scientist Patricia Doherty was awarded an Air Force grant of nearly $2.7 million over five years to characterize and forecast ionospheric effects on communication and navigation systems. This work includes the study of potentially damaging ionospheric storms: She noted one of the largest magnetic storms on record pelted the ionosphere at the end of October a year ago.

In May, Senior Research Scientist Brian Sullivan '63 MA '65 was awarded an Air Force grant of $4.99 million over five years for work on space-weather forecasting. "We've had solar storms that have knocked out power on the East Coast," said Sullivan, who has developed space-weather forecasting software for the Air Force, and now is devising a special film that when placed on a satellite can capture a full picture of space.

The space research they do has down-to-earth significance, said Doherty. "Everywhere we go today is guided by satellite navigation - ships, planes, even a lot of cars have satellite navigation," she said. "Everything we do now is devoted to day-to-day life. We all have a cell phone. We all take planes or drive a car."

What is now the Institute for Scientific Research began a half-century ago in the work done for the Air Force at Hanscom Field by Prof. Marcou, who joined the BC faculty in 1934 and was instrumental in building the Mathematics Department.

In the early '50s, the aim was to study atmospheric conditions that would affect radar communications. The Air Force would launch a rocket with a sensor that would eject and parachute back to earth with readings taken of the ionosphere. Prof. Marcou was commissioned to devise mathematical algorithms that could be used to analyze the data.

The work led to the founding of the Ionospheric Research Laboratory at BC in 1958. Power joined the lab as a junior researcher the next year, and Sullivan, in 1963.

The two longtime colleagues last week fondly recalled their mathematician mentor in the years before scientific research became a multimillion dollar enterprise at the university.

"Rene Marcou was a different breed, a real egghead, who had three loves: mathematics, politics and family," Power said.

"A Frenchman, he would come to work every morning with his beret, a cigar, and a briefcase full of equations. He'd put the cigar on the chalk tray, the beret on the desk, pull the equations out of his briefcase, pick up the chalk, and begin deriving equations.

"He would derive equations till five o'clock at night, when he would put the chalk down on the tray, pick up the cigar, put the equations in his briefcase, go home, have supper, turn on the television, watch 'Gunsmoke' while doing equations on his lap, then retire. The next day he'd start the same routine over again.

"He was a real character," Power said, with a laugh, "a nerd before his time."

Sullivan recalled Marcou's approach to teaching partial differential equations:

"He would fill panel after panel with equations, then take a whole bloc of equations and say, 'We'll call this A.' The next bloc would be B, and then he'd total the equation A plus B plus C. You'd go home and look at your notes and say, 'what the heck is A?'"

Sullivan recalled a "eureka" moment gone awry when a Frieden calculating machine was being used to plot the parabolic trajectory of a rocket. "Marcou spends two days doing it. Finally, he yells, 'I got it,' slams his hand down on the 'clear' button - and it was all gone."

"He never made the adjustment to the computer age," said Power. But sponsored research at Boston College today can be traced to Rene Marcou's chalk-filled blackboard.

top of page