Jove’s Thunderbolts

In the spring of 1955 Providence wished that the drama should heighten itself. The old chief of all the pagans, the planet Jupiter, was destined to enter the scene and speak.

It was a spring day in early April in Princeton. This is the time of year when magnolia flower, and the Princeton campus has not a few of these trees, especially near the Firestone Library, profusely blooming. During the first week of April of that year the semi-annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society convened for three days in Princeton, in the University’s Chemical Building (Frick Laboratories). I entered the auditorium during the reading of one of the papers, when the audience was already seated, and chose a place on one of the back benches, close to the entrance. I did not wish to disturb the convention by my presence because, being recognized, I would have caused some discomfort. After listening to Dr. W. Baade and possibly to one more speaker, I left as quietly as I entered—I did not return for other papers. The program of the three-day convention had one hundred and two papers presented by astronomers from all over the country, but only one—not scheduled, yet read because of the great impact it carried in the field of planetary astronomy—made news. The next day, April 6th, opening the New York Times, I found a page-length column on a sensational discovery reported at the meeting. The column read in parts:

Radio waves from the giant planet Jupiter have been detected by astronomers at the Carnegie Institution in Washington.

The waves appear to be short bursts of static, much like those produced by thunderstorms on conventional radio receivers . . . no radio sounds from planets in our solar system have been reported previously . . . the existence of the mysterious Jovian waves was disclosed by Dr. Bernard F. Burke and Dr. Kenneth L. Franklin in a report today at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society here . . .

The two scientists said that they did not have an explanation for the observed emission.

— Princeton, N.J., April 6

The discovery was made entirely by chance when the Carnegie Institution astronomers scanned the sky for radio noises from far-away galaxies. In the news release it was told that Burke and Franklin, who detected the radio noises of Jupiter, were entirely unprepared to observe any radio signal from the planet; later their perplexity was more fully described: at one point they even assumed that some revellers returning from a party were the cause, trying to start the engine of their car, or that the radio noises were caused by some experiments on a neighboring radio station. But the noises were finally traced to Jupiter: in the weeks that followed, Burke and Franklin observed that the signals were arriving four minutes earlier each day and at length they realized that they must be of extraterrestrial origin. Every third night, for six minutes, when the receiving antenna was directed toward the spot crossed at these minutes by Jupiter, the signals repeated themselves. Then the astronomers of Washington came to the correct conclusion, unexpected and surprising as it was.

For me, this news had a special significance. My own earlier expectation of the noises of Jupiter was based on my view of the giant planet as the center of a powerful electromagnetic system. In ancient sources the planet Jupiter was associated with thunderbolts.

Before World War II, a discovery was made by Jansky of the Bell Laboratories that radio signals arrive from the Milky Way. During the War it was discovered by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Belmar, New Jersey, that the sun sends out radio noises, too: it was a chance discovery made in the process of testing radar echoes from the moon. Then radio noises were found arriving from far-away galaxies and were explained as crashes between galaxies riding through one another. A new science—radioastronomy—was born.

My understanding of the nature of the sun and planets made me assume that these bodies are charged, or that at least their atmospheres are strongly ionized. Of Jupiter and Saturn it is known that they influence in some mysterious manner the solar spot activity: but nobody thought that these bodies or their atmospheres are charged.

Now, seeing my claims confirmed, I called Helen Dukas and told her that I would like to acquaint Professor Einstein with the discovery of the noises coming from Jupiter, and wished to see him, for a few minutes only—we agreed that I should come Friday, April 8th, in the afternoon. Then I called my editor at Doubleday, Walter Bradbury, and told him that I would come the next day, in the morning. Already on the phone I drew his attention to the column in the Times. My book, Earth in Upheaval was being prepared for print, together with my lecture before the Forum of October 14, 1953 as a supplement,1 and this lecture contained my challenge that Jupiter would radiate radio signals. For several years I wished that a check should be made on Jupiter, and took this opportunity to suggest it to scientists. In my letter to Einstein of June 16, 1954 I again suggested that an investigation be performed—it was a challenge on my part to Einstein to stake the debate on this my claim and at the same time a plea to help me that the test should be performed. Einstein did not respond in that instance. In a note made on the margin of my letter he wrote that this would be no criterion. This was not well thought through. Either there must be on Jupiter a dissociation of negative and positive charges that would produce thunderstorms of unearthly magnitudes, or, more likely, the entire body of Jupiter is charged, surrounded by an electromagnetic field, and attracts opposite charges from space, yet by continuous subatomic processes of fission in the great discharges, or by some other process, keeps its general charge undiminished.

The Forum lecture, a discussion of my theses of 1950 in the light of new discoveries in the fields of archaeology, geology, and astronomy, brought in its wake, even sooner than I dared to hope, a confirmation of a bold yet well-founded advance claim. the discovery of the Jupiter noises thrilled me as had no other confirmation before, and it was the first of a long and spectacular series.


  1. The text was already copy-edited the summer before by Mrs. Kathryn Tebbel, a copy-editor at Doubleday, and the passage carries her pencil marks with two minor stylistic corrections. Thus Doubleday could witness that my lecture about Jupiter was in their hands long before the discovery was made.