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Edward Purdy Ney papers

Identifier: ua-01031

Scope and content note:

The Ney collection presents the life work of a dedicated scientific scholar whose intellectual curiosity extended to issues far beyond the laboratory. Ney preferred to be on the frontiers of research. What he termed his "seven-year itch" propelled him from work in mass spectrometry to cosmic rays to astronomy to space photography and finally to radon and rainwater. He combined a vast intellect with great integrity and thorough methodology. He once commented, "Whatever you don't test will come back to haunt you."

Ney believed that new knowledge was crucial to the life of the university community. He found that productive research necessitated involvement with the active teaching of students, a major reason Ney never went to work for industry. He consistently defended what he determined to be the absolute necessity for good teaching and connecting with students-from the introductory course to the Ph. D. level. He often remarked that he had learned more from his students than they had learned from him.

He maintained a firm belief in the value of basic research but was practical enough to conduct much of his work in conjunction with the military and NASA, valuable sources of funding. His views on the subject were revealed in a lengthy letter, dated December 22, 1971, to University of Minnesota Institute of Technology Dean Richard Swalin. Ney criticized declining federal support for university research and feared that basic research would not continue. "If it does not survive we will produce a non-saleable normal school product…I believe that unless a society pushes the frontiers that technology makes possible, the society is decadent."

Ed Ney was known for his strong opinions, some of which appeared in editorial articles in the Minnesota Daily, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other publications. He defended atomic energy and criticized the nuclear arms race and the Strategic Defense Initiative. He favored unmanned space exploration over astronaut flights and was especially vocal on the subject after the Challenger explosion in January, 1986. Although he worked eagerly with astronauts, he said he did it to demonstrate that they could collect data. He commented, "It was fun to get to know the astronauts, but a hard way to do science." In his fervent defense of basic research, he took a vehement stand against what he perceived in the mid-1980's as NASA's preference for in-house space experiments over university-based research.

Ed Ney's papers present a long and dedicated legacy of scientific inquiry, tempered by a finely-tuned sense of humor in an individual who possessed an uncanny ability not to take himself too seriously.


  • 1941-1996

Language of Materials


Use of materials:

Items in this collection do not circulate and may be used in-house only


Researchers may quote from the collection under the fair us provision of the copyright law (Title 17, U.S. Code). Requests to publish should be arranged with the University of Minnesota Archives.

Biographical note:

Edward Purdy Ney was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 28, 1920, and grew up in Waukon, a small town in northeastern Iowa. During his high school years he developed an intense interest in science and encountered a less-than-encouraging principal who predicted, "Nobody who ever graduated from this school has ever done anything in science, and neither will you." Ed Ney spent most of the next six decades proving the principal wrong.

Ney chose the University of Minnesota for his undergraduate education, and there physics professor Alfred Nier hired him as a laboratory assistant. After Nier's successful isolation of U235 in the spring of 1940, Ney worked with Nier designing and building additional mass spectrometers for uranium processing.

Ney graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1942 and began a graduate program at the University of Virginia working with Professor Jesse Beams and the Naval Research Laboratory in analysis of uranium isotopes for the Manhattan Project. Upon receiving a Ph. D. in physics in 1946, Ney joined the Virginia faculty and began research with cosmic rays. He once remarked that he switched from mass spectrometry because "I knew I couldn't compete with Al Nier."

Ney's work with cosmic rays attracted the notice of the University of Minnesota's nationally-prominent physicist John Tate, who was about to embark on a cosmic ray program using Jean Piccard's plastic balloons. In 1947 Tate hired Ney as an assistant professor along with two other Manhattan Project scientists-Ed Lofgren and Frank Oppenheimer. Ney spent the remainder of his career at Minnesota advancing to associate professor in 1950 and professor in 1953 and to the honor of Regents' Professor in 1974.

During the course of the cosmic ray research, an experiment conducted on April 21, 1948, provided the data for Ney's graduate student Phyllis Freier 's seminal conclusion that cosmic rays from outer space included the nuclei of heavy elements. During the 1950's Ney, together with Minnesota professors John Winckler and Charles Critchfield, organized the Minnesota Balloon Project, which at one time operated on a million-dollar budget financed by U. S. Army, Navy, and Air Force contracts. The military was interested in using balloons for surveillance work during the Cold War.

The solar flares Ney observed in balloon research led him to an interest in coronal light, work which he initially shared with colleague Paul Kellogg. In October, 1959, he traveled to what was then French West Africa to study an eclipse of the sun. During the early 1960' Ney's interests began to gravitate more toward astronomy and solar physics. In 1960 he shared a National Aeronautics and Space Administration grant with Winckler to study cosmic rays and solar terrestrial phenomenon. In June of 1960, he traveled to the Bolivian Andes to study zodiacal light at Chacataya; and later that year he spent a leave from Minnesota working with J. Blamont at the Maudon Observatory in Paris. Further study of zodiacal light brought him to Mexico in February, 1962, during another solar eclipse.

Ney took a sabbatical leave during the 1962-1963 academic year, supported by a National Science Foundation Senior Postdoctoral Fellowship. He traveled with his wife and four children to Australia to "…get my merit badge in astronomy." He worked with Hanbury Brown and Richard Twiss on the intensity interperometer under construction at Narrabri, New South Wales. The project was affiliated with the Chatterton Astronomy Department of the University of Sydney.

Upon his return to the U. S. in the early summer of 1963, Ney observed another total solar eclipse in Maine and eastern Canada. Inspired by students Fred Gilbert and Wayne Stein he became intrigued with the new field of infrared astronomy. Support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and a local philanthropic family led to the University establishing the O'Brien Observatory at Marine on St. Croix in 1967. The facility featured a thirty-inch infrared telescope designed by Ney. The University of Minnesota, together with the University of California, San Diego, also built a sixty-inch telescope at Mount Lemmon near Tucson, Arizona. In using the infrared technology Ney and his associates discovered that comets and aging stars contain the same silicates and carbon grains that are basic to terrestrial planets.

Ney's continued interest in the solar corona and zodiacal light led to a number of NASA projects during the mid-1960's, including the design of cameras and polarimeters used on Mercury and Gemini flights and on two unmanned Orbiting Solar Observatory spacecraft. In 1963 Ney trained and briefed astronaut Gordon Cooper in the use of a special camera designed by U. of M. research associate William Huch. The photography was part of S-1, the first scientific experiment conducted on a manned space flight. In 1966 Ney worked with Eugene Cernan and Thomas Stafford to collect data on airglow and to photograph a solar eclipse. In 1969 NASA recognized Ney's pioneering work and granted him the Apollo Achievement Award.

Back on earth Ney continued to study eclipses and comets, including a total eclipse of the sun viewed from Bow Bells, North Dakota, and the visit of Comet Halley in 1986. Ney was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1971 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1979. In 1975 he won NASA's Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal.

Ed Ney suffered a serious heart attack in 1982, followed by open heart surgery on November 28 of that year, an experience which left him with ventricular tachycardia for the remainder of his life. Always eager for new learning experiences and innovative approaches to problems, Ney applied his knowledge of physics to the study of his own illness and his heart's electrical system.

Ney's illness slowed his pace for a few years, but he returned to the research scene pursuing an interest in the radon gas produced by the radioactive decay of uranium in the earth. As in many of his earlier experiments he often invented his own equipment and invested his own money when grant attempts failed. He even kept meticulous records of rain water samples collected in his own basement.

In addition to his vigorous research emphasis, Ed Ney never lost his focus as a teacher. In 1964 he won the University's Outstanding Teacher Award. He relished teaching introductory courses and used his unusual talents to challenge intellectual curiosity. He saved many examples of his students' papers and often took Polaroid photographs in class. His quirky, eccentric manner challenged the conventional wisdom in both his professional and personal lives. He often dressed in red, hightop tennis shoes and sported a calculator on his belt. He loved his work, and everyone knew it. He was propelled by an insatiable curiosity which even led to such antics as trying to see how fast he could drive his 1963 Jaguar before the state troopers intervened. Many of his exploits are remembered in his clever poems and limericks.

Throughout his career Ney was active in several professional organizations and served on a number of scientific committees. In 1955 he participated in a U. S. Air Force Study Group on Biological Aspects of Cosmic Radiation. In 1959 he chaired a National Research Council, Space Sciences Board, subcommittee on nuclear emulsions and through 1964 participated in other board committees. He worked as a consultant to NASA's Planetary and Interplanetary Subcommittee during 1960-1961. In October, 1975, he was appointed to the National Science Foundation's Visiting Committee, Astronomy Section. From 1976 to 1978 he served on the editorial board of Science magazine, and from 1976 to 1979 he was a member of the Council of the American Astronomical Society. He served on NASA's Balloon Committee during the 1970's and on the National Academy of Sciences, NRC, Space Sciences Board from l979 to 1982. At the University of Minnesota he served on the University Senate from 1982 to 1985, a time of intense discussion of tenure and salary issues.

Ed Ney retired from the University in 1990, but he didn't retire from research. He continued his radon experiments, at times collaborating with Richard Lively of the Minnesota Geological Survey. In 1992 he received the University of Minnesota Outstanding Achievement Award. Ed Ney's long battle with heart disease ended with his death on July 9, 1996. His unwavering intellectual curiosity and his thorough and innovative methodology led him from collecting U235 for Al Nier to chasing balloons in an old convertible to directing astronauts in space photography to collecting rain samples in his own basement. It was a long and rewarding journey.


18.75 Cubic Feet (15 boxes)


The collection consists of correspondence, research data, patent drawings, publications, and reports of Edward P. Ney, University of Minnesota physicist and astronomer best known for research in cosmic rays, the solar corona, zodiacal light, infrared astronomy, space photography, and radon gas.

Organization and arrangement:

After Ney's death in 1996 his papers were collected from a University office found to be in considerable disarray and with a unique and mysterious filing system, some of which is revealed in a number of creative folder titles. The circumstances also left a number of folders untitled and undated.

The Ney papers are organized essentially in an alphabetical arrangement. The alphabet designations may be determined by content, such as a type of experiment or the name of an organization, or by type of materials, such as correspondence or publications. Since items which relate to a particular research project may be found under a number of folder titles, the researcher should study the folder lists carefully.

One of the largest alphabetical categories includes folders classified under some form of the word "Balloon" and found in Boxes 2 and 3. This research comprised a considerable part of Ney's early work at the University of Minnesota. One particularly significant folder in this category is titled "Balloons, Civil Aeronautics Administration" and found in Box 3. Another important folder found in Box 3 is titled "Ballooning, Australia" and includes a notebook which reveals the methodology used in Ney's early astronomy work. Two additional folders filed under "Australia" in Box 2 provide more information on Ney's 1962-1963 sabbatical.

Several folders titled "Africa, Solar Eclipse Expedition" are located in Box 1. One of them includes a report, dated August 7, 1959, in which Ney relates in considerable detail the trip made to French West Africa in July to prepare for the experiments conducted during the October 2 eclipse. During the July trip Ney was seriously injured in a truck accident.

A large category of materials is found under the "National Aeronautics and Space Administration" and located in Boxes 8 and 10. Other materials related to space science can also be found under other titles, so carefully scrutiny of the folder lists is advised.

Copies of Ney's publications comprise another significant part of the collection and are arranged chronologically in Box 13. There are also folders containing publications of Ney's University of Minnesota physics and astronomy colleagues, who conducted experiments related to Ney's work.

Although there are designated correspondence folders in Box 5, correspondence can be found in other folders throughout he collection. These materials are noted in folder titles where applicable.

Photographs taken by Mercury and Gemini astronauts can be found under "Zodiacal Light, Photographs" in Box 15. The computation book related to Gordon Cooper's photography is found in the folder titled "Computation Book: Ney's Camera, Cooper's MA-9 Flight," located in Box 5. Box 1 includes a folder titled "Astronaut Photographs of Dim Sky Phenomena."

Source of acquisition:

Donated to University of Minnesota Archives.

Related material:

Additional balloon photographs are located in the University of Minnesota Special Collections and Rare Books materials located in the Elmer L. Andersen Library.

Processing information:

Collection processed by Carol E. Jenson.
Edward Purdy Ney papers, 1941-1996
Carol E. Jenson
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Collecting Area Details

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