The Bruce Medalists


  Photo courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection
Gerry Otto Neugebauer
3 September 1932 2010 Bruce Medalist 26 September 2014

Gerry Neugebauer was born in Göttingen, Germany, the son of famed mathematics and science historian Otto Neugebauer, and moved with his family to Denmark and then Rhode Island in early childhood. He was educated at Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology, where he earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1960. He spent his entire career at Caltech, where he was a professor of physics until his retirement in 1998 and served as director of the Palomar Observatory from 1980 to 1994. Although his doctorate was in particle physics, he quickly turned to astronomy, in particular the new field of infrared observations. This started with his work on infrared detectors when he served in the army, based at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for his first two postdoctoral years. After that he joined the Caltech faculty, where he teamed up with physicist Robert Leighton to build an inexpensive 1.5-m telescope and use it to survey the sky at a wavelength of 2.2 micrometers. The survey found tens of thousands of sources, mostly cool stars, and justifed further work in the infrared. Using conventional telescopes and their own detectors, Neugebauer and his graduate student Eric Becklin discovered a massive star hidden in the Orion Nebula, now known as the “Becklin-Neugebauer object.” it was later identified as a highly obscured newly-forming star. They also discovered infrared radiation from the center of our galaxy and studied this region in detail. While observing planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies, and quasars in the near-infrared from the ground, Neugebauer became co-chairman of the science team of the first orbiting infrared observatory, the Infrared Astronomy Satellite (IRAS). This spacecraft operated for ten months in 1983 and detected about 350,000 objects, including ultraluminous infrared galaxies and debris disks orbiting nearby stars. Working with many colleagues, especially B.T. “Tom” Soifer and Keith Matthews, Neugebauer continued to develop and expand infrared, sub-millimeter, and millimeter wavelength observational astronomy for decades. He was among the leaders in building the W.M. Keck Observatory, and he and his colleagues used it to detect stars orbiting the black hole at the center of the Galaxy. He participated in observations made on several missions to the planets and on the Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes and the Infrared Space Observatory. Note: Neugebauer’s first name is pronounced “Gary”. It was originally Gerhard.

Other awards
American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Rumford Prize, 1986 (with Robert B. Leighton and Frank J. Low).
American Astronomical Society, Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, 1996.
Royal Astronomical Society, Herschel Medal, 1998.

Biographical materials
Caltech Archives, Introduction to his papers.
Soifer, B. Thomas, Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, 2016.

Martin, Douglas, New York Times, 2 October 2014.
Soifer, B. Thomas, Proceedins of the National Academy of Sciences 111, 17342-43 (2014).
Svitil, Kathy, Caltech press release, 26 September 2014.

AIP Center for History of Physics (several)

Named after him
Minor Planet #3484 Neugebauer (with his father Otto and wife Marcia).

More references

The Bruce Medalists

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