MIT Kavli Institute Directory

John W. Belcher

Class of 1922 Professor of Physics Faculty

John Belcher receives prestigious Oersted Medal -- MIT professor of physics honored with the highest teaching award in the American physics community. The Hans Christian Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers was given in recognition of Belcher’s “tireless work with TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).” For additional information, please see MIT News and Department of Physics.


Professor Belcher was born in Louisiana in 1943, and graduated from Odessa High School in West Texas in 1961. He attended Rice University in Houston, graduating with a double major in math and physics in 1965, summa cum laude. He then went to Caltech for graduate school where he earned his Ph.D. in Physics in 1971.

Professor Belcher came to MIT in 1971, to work with Professors Herbert Bridge and Alan Lazarus, who had the plasma probe on board Mariner 5. Just after he arrived, the Space Plasma Group wrote a proposal for the Voyager mission to Jupiter and Saturn. After reaching these two planets, as well as Uranus and Neptune, Voyager is still going strong. In its most recent incarnation, it is refered to as the Voyager Interstellar Mission. Within the next twenty years, it is probable that the MIT plasma instrument on Voyager 2 will make measurements in the interstellar medium.

Professor Belcher has twice received the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, once for contributions to the understanding of the plasma dynamics of the Jovian magnetosphere, in 1980, and once for his role as principal investigator on the Plasma Science Experiment on Voyager during the Neptune encounter, in 1990. In 2004, the Institute awarded Belcher with the Class of '22 professorship, designed to honor "a tenured faculty member with a record of excellence in education, with respect to both curriculum development and classroom teaching." In July 2007, Prof. Belcher was named Division Head for Astrophysics.


Research interests: 

Professor Belcher's research interests are within the areas of space plasma physics, outer planet magnetospheres, solar wind in the outer heliosphere, and astrophysical plasmas. He was the principal investigator on the Voyager Plasma Science Experiment during the Voyager Nepture Encounter—the end of the Grand Tour. He is now a co-investigator on the Plasma Science Experiment on board the Voyager Interstellar Mission.

Representative publications: 

(1) Belcher, J.W. and L. Davis, Jr.: Large Amplitude Alfven Waves in the Interplanetary Medium, 2, J. Geophys. Res. 76, 3534, 1971.
(2) Belcher, J.W.: Alfven wave pressures and the solar wind, Astrophys. J. 168, 509, 1971.
(3) Belcher, J.W. and K.B. MacGregor: Magnetic Acceleration of Winds from Solar-type Stars, Astrophys. J. 210, 498-507, 1976.
(4) Belcher, J. W., C. K. Goertz, J. D. Sullivan, M. H. Acuna: Plasma Observations of the Alfven Wave Generated by Io, J.Geophys. Res. 86, 8319, 1981.
(5) Belcher, J.W., The Low Energy Plasma in the Jovian Magnetosphere, Physics of the Jovian Magnetosphere, ed. A. J. Dessler, Cambridge University Press, 1983.
(6) Belcher, John W., The Jupiter-Io Connection: An Alfven Engine in Space, Science 258, 133-248, 1987.
(7) Belcher, J. W., H. S. Bridge, F. Bagenal, B. Coppi, O. Divers, A. Eviatar, G. S. Gordon, Jr., A. J. Lazarus, R. L. McNutt, Jr., K. W. Ogilvie, J. D. Richardson, G. L. Siscoe, E. C. Sittler, Jr., J. T. Steinberg, J. D. Sullivan, A. Szabo, L. Villanueva, V. M. Vasyliunas, and M. Zhang, Plasma Observations Near Neptune: Initial Results from Voyager 2, Science, 246, 1478-1483, 1989.
(8) Belcher, John W., Alan J. Lazarus, Ralph L. McNutt, Jr. and George S. Gordon, Jr., Solar Wind Conditions in the Outer Heliosphere and the Distance to the Termination Shock, J. Geophys. Res. 15,177-15,183, 1993.

Honors and awards: 

March 2015 MIT Excellence Award for Advancing Inclusion and Global Perspectives

August 2015 awarded prestigious Hans Christian Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers






Landing page photo: Justin Knight Photography






Contact Information

t: 617-253-4285


Ph.D. Physics, Caltech, 1971